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Plastic in the Ocean: The Great Pacific Garbage Patch

Plastic in the Ocean: The Great Pacific Garbage Patch

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a collection of waste, consisting of mostly discarded plastic, that is concentrated by ocean currents.

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The Great Pacific Garbage Patch

Miles out in the Pacific ocean, somewhere between the Western Coast of the United States and Japan near the Hawaiian Islands, there is a buoyant testimonial to the human consumption – and waste – of plastics. Brought together by circular ocean currents, the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” is a large assortment of debris composed mainly of tiny bits of submerged photodegraded plastic. Estimated to be composed of 80% plastic and weighing approximately as much as 3.5 million tons collectively, no one is sure how large the patch really is, but common speculations range from twice the size of France, the size of Texas, twice the size of Texas, to even double the size of the United States.

One misconception about the patch is that is is a concentrated island of debris floating in the ocean. The reality of the patch is that it is an area containing very small bits of plastic, hardly detectable to the casual viewer.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch was discovered in 1997 by a retired California sailor by the name of Charles Moore. “It’s a dispersed congregation of our debris from civilization, mostly plastic,” said Moore in an interview with NPR, “It’s breaking into small fragments. … If it’s calm it sort of looks like a giant salt shaker has sprinkled bits of plastic onto the surface of the ocean.” Mirriam Goldstein, of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego, described the patch in a similar way in an interview with U.S. News:

“It’s not really easy to see. The ocean looks like the ocean anywhere else, although you will see larger pieces of trash floating by… But if you put a net in the water, you’ll grab hundreds of thousands of tiny pieces of plastic.”

Plastic Pollutes the Oceans

According to a 2013 article in the Huffington Post, the majority of the plastic in the oceans comes from stray water bottles and plastic bags.

Originally, scientists believed that plastics broke down over hundreds of years at high temperatures, but new studies are showing that they quickly begin to photodegrade due to sunlight and ocean waves at much cooler temperatures than were initially expected. The result is the many small pieces of plastic that construct the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

As the plastics degrade, they absorb chemical pollutants and leave behind styrene trimer, a possible carcinogen, and bisphenol A (BPA), which is known to hinder animal reproduction. Scientists fear that these chemicals will eventually make their way to humans through the marine food chain. BPA was recently banned in some plastic bottles by the FDA due to continuing concerns about its safety.

Additionally, a 2009 article in the Telegraph claims that every year oceanic plastics kill 100,000 marine mammals and a million seabirds due to ingestion and entanglement.

Statistics related to the Pacific Garbage Patch

  • Since the 1950s, the Pacific Garbage Patch has been estimated to grow ten times larger every decade.
  • Due to its primary composition of small particles, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is not detectable by aircraft or satellite.
  • 80% of ocean garbage is believed to have originated on land. The other 20% may be discarded from boats.
  • Every square mile of ocean is predicted to contain 46,000 bits of plastic
  • A square mile of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch can contain up to 1.9 million bits of plastic
  • 10% of globally manufactured plastics may end up in the ocean

Cleaning Up The Great Pacific Garbage Patch

Cleaning up plastics from the ocean will likely be difficult, as it is located in the ocean and no single country will take responsibility for it. Cleanup will presumably cost billions of dollars.

Two companies, Belgian-based Ecover and San Francisco’s Method, create products partially manufactured from recycled ocean plastic.

SFGate, a sister website to the San Francisco Chronicle, offers several ways that the average citizen can help:

  • Limit usage of plastic products
  • When shopping, utilize reusable bags
  • Do not leave trash or litter on beaches
  • Secure trash bins by making sure lids are tightly closed

Political Debate

The patch itself has been the subject of debate among political adversaries. Because the size and depth of the problem are not clearly defined, politicians disagree on how the problem should be tackled, if at all.

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New Developments

A 2014 article in the Statesman Journal entitled, The Great Pacific Garbage Patch Hoax urges readers to “Forget all those warnings about the million tons of plastic debris floating in the ocean. Ignore the photos that you think show the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.” That article cites a June 30 article published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in which ecologist Andrés Cózar from the University of Cadiz in Spain reports that the amount of ocean plastic was far less than expected. Possible explanations are that the plastic could be breaking down into undetectable sizes, or that it is sinking into the deep ocean. The consequences of these new suggested scenarios are unknown.

In 2015, National Geographic reported on the world’s “garbage patches” and noted that China was deemed the worst offender in generating ocean-bound trash. It also reported that 288 million tons of plastic were produced worldwide in 2012, and as much as 12.7 million tons end up in the oceans each year.

Garbage Patches in the Indian and Atlantic Oceans

A 2009 article in Time magazine mentions that the Indian Ocean also contains a garbage patch, yet it does not mention the size.

In early 2010, an article in National Geographic reported on another large garbage patch in the Atlantic Ocean. The width of the patch is still unknown, but it is thought to stretch from between 22 and 38 degrees north latitude, a distance roughly equal to that from the state of Virginia to Cuba.

Dr. Pearn Niller, an expert on ocean currents at the Scripps Oceanographic Institute, has suggested that there may be a very large garbage patch in the South Pacific near Easter Island.

Bottom Line

Roughly 10% of the plastics manufactured on earth are estimated to end up in the ocean. Evidence of this has been found in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a massive collection of undersea plastic debris that is trapped by rotating ocean currents. These plastics are degrading into small bits which absorb and leak chemical pollutants, and scientists have expressed apprehension that these chemicals may eventually reach humans through the aquatic food chain. Similar, yet smaller, garbage patches have been discovered in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. It is possible that other undiscovered garbage patches may exist in various oceans throughout the world. A new study suggests that plastic in the ocean may be breaking down into undetectable sizes, or being carried into the deep ocean, and it is unknown what effect this scenario would have on ocean ecology.

Updated May 12, 2015
Originally published July 2014

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