Like a trash dump on a much more massive scale, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a soupy collection of marine debris floating in the North Pacific Ocean. Believe it or not, people are throwing garbage into the street, into the sewer, and into the ocean, often littering waterways with unwanted plastic and general rubbish. But what makes this collection of pollutants any different?
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is no ordinary mass of debris; it is a trash vortex, spanning waters from the West Coast of North America to the shores of Japan and continually churning swaths of bottles, derelict fishing nets, and literally tons of other garbage over thousands of miles.
And while it’s not one visible island of bobbing water bottles and misshapen yogurt cups, it is an incredibly large stretch of ocean with an extremely high concentration of microplastics that have broken down over time and are now floating just below the surface. Even though the rogue material is small and often invisible to the naked eye, it poses a significant threat to the environment and the natural ecosystems of the sea.
Where did the Great Pacific Garbage Patch come from?
The famous patch of pollution formed around several gathering points of rotating currents and winds that converge to collect marine debris, in addition to naturally occurring material like plankton, seaweed, and other small sea life. As a result of human waste transported by ocean currents, the patch has formed naturally over time and now occupies a relatively calm area within the North Pacific.
The material is essentially captured in the currents and gradually moves across the ocean, breaking down over time into smaller bits, but never disappearing. The patch continues to grow, fed primarily by litter and improperly disposed waste. Studies show about 80% of the garbage now floating in the patch comes from land-based sources in North America and Asia, while the other 20% comes from boats, cargo ships, and oil rigs in the sea.
When was it discovered?
First described in a 1988 paper by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the patch was a painful discovery for several Alaskan researchers who found high concentrations of marine debris accumulating in specific areas of the Pacific.
A well-known oceanographer and boat racing aficionado by the name of Charles Moore corroborated these findings when he claimed to have encountered a massive stretch of floating waste in the Pacific while returning home from a sailing event in 1999. Moore immediately notified researchers, who soon officially dubbed the region as the “Eastern Garbage Patch.” This soon became just one part of a larger discovery, linking several problematic regions together and creating what is now known at the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
Because the majority of the debris consists of small particles following the movements of ocean currents, estimating the exact size of the patch is challenging. It is impossible to see the floating material from the air or by satellite, so the main way to determine the extent of the problem is through sampling.
Extensive research suggests the patch is now roughly the size of Texas, measuring about 270,000 square miles, or up to 8% of the Pacific Ocean and growing. The Scripps Institute of Oceanography conducted a survey of the patch at various locations and at various depths in 2009 and concluded that the vast majority of the vortex is comprised of “confetti-like” pieces that increase in concentration towards the center of the gyre.
The dangers of microplastics
While it’s clear these tiny bits of troublesome plastic are the product of humans, what’s not as clear is how this reality will affect our world in the long run. For starters, the plastics are ending up in the stomachs of all sorts of marine animals, from sea turtles to jellyfish to birds. The midway point between the U.S. and Japan, around the Hawaiian Islands, sees 20 tons of plastic debris wash up on its shores every year, with about five tons of that garbage going straight into the mouths of baby albatross chicks, a species that is being diminished by one-third as the problem continues.
Because these species are connected to others within larger food webs, any small marine life form that ingests the contaminants will pose a threat to those animals that eat them, all the way up the food chain and including humans. In this way, marine pollution threatens both the ocean and one of our greatest food sources.
The solution to the problem is unclear, largely because most of the particles are very small, while the Pacific Ocean is incredibly vast. Emphasizing this point, the NOAA estimated that to clean up just 1% of the Pacific, it would require 67 ships working for an entire year. Meanwhile, the patch continues to swirl and grow in the middle of the sea, and so too does our waste management predicament.