The Great Pacific Garbage Patch

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch
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A massive culmination of garbage in the North Pacific Ocean. Find out where it all comes from.

• General: Educational

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is the result of natural and human forces. Man made litter finds its way into the ocean, and gyres - currents with a set rotation - transports the marine litter around our oceans. Another factor is the North Pacific Subtropical Convergence Zone, north of the Hawaiian Islands. This zone creates a direct link of trash to the patch, as a result of cold Arctic waters combining with warm water from the South Pacific.

The exact size of the patch is difficult to calculate, since much of it floats under the surface and makes it hard to actually see. There are ways to test areas, but there's still further testing needed to make an informed estimate. The estimates that have already been proposed vary greatly, from double the size of Texas to about 8% of the Pacific Ocean.

The patch is clearly very large, and the damage that it's causing is truly alarming. Around 80% of the trash that makes up the patch comes from land, and the other 20% is the result of abandoned ocean gear and other types of sea related litter. The implications are grim for all the creatures of the ocean, from the smallest to the largest marine animals.

The trash that floats around the surface can create a barrier between the sunlight and plankton, which are a necessary and important part of the entire ocean. Without crucial light from the sun, plankton won't survive. This creates a huge imbalance in the ocean, leading to fatal implications for every aquatic being.

The 20% of trash from ocean sources, such as fishing nets and other types of fishing gear, can be very dangerous for larger animals, such as sea lions and whales. When sea creatures become ensnared in the debris, these animals can become injured, or even die, from the encounter.

The Impact Of The Great Garbage Patch

The consequences of this problem aren't limited to the creatures that live in this vast body of water. The oceans are a symbol of earth's fragile ecosystem. Millions of people rely on the ocean for their livelihood and to feed their families. The remote islands in Polynesia and Hawaii are intertwined with the ocean for their culture and survival. The impact of oceanic wildlife being threatened by man made debris and pollution is a serious threat not only to the sea creatures but to the survival of islanders and island culture.

However, NOAA (The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) want to dispel some of the myths that there is a floating landfill in the middle of the ocean with plastic bottles, and ramen cups. NOAA Marine Debris Program's Carey Morishige says the following:

"There is no actual garbage patch, a name which conjures images of a floating landfill in the middle of the ocean, with miles of bobbing plastic bottles and rogue yogurt cups."

"While it's true that these areas have a higher concentration of plastic than other parts of the ocean, much of the debris found in these areas are small bits of plastic (microplastics) that are suspended throughout the water column. A comparison I like to use is that the debris is more like flecks of pepper floating throughout a bowl of soup, rather than a skim of fat that accumulates (or sits) on the surface."

"There are many garbage patches, and by that we mean that trash congregates to various degrees in numerous parts of the Pacific and the rest of the ocean. These natural gathering points appear where rotating currents, winds, and other ocean features converge to accumulate marine debris, as well as plankton, seaweed, and other sea life."

No matter how you look at it, the garbage should not be there and the problem won't go away until a multinational effort to address the issue of plastics and non-biodegradable waste are confronted.

So How Can You Help?

It all starts with how you consume. Avoid using one-use containers, plasticware, and plastic bags. In fact, avoiding as much plastic as possible is probably a good option for us all. Full re-usable containers (like a glass jar for example) are the best option with biodegradable options being a smart choice when one-use containers are needed.

Visiting a store? Refuse their bags or bring your home. If that isn't an option, choose a paper bag over plastic. If you end up with a plastic bag find a plastic bag recycling center. In any coastal areas, lightweight plastic bags commonly get caught in the slightest breeze and end up in the ocean. Even well inland, these same bags (and other trash) get caught in storm drains, streams, and rivers which often lead to oceans.

When you're out and about you can choose to be part of the solution, because anything else means you are the problem. Look for rogue trash on the ground during your everyday activities and dispose of it properly. Hitting one of Hawaii's amazing beaches? Then do your part and pack out what you packed in as well as looking for and getting rid of trash you find on the beach, even if it isn't yours. Beaches are the last line of defense, after that it's out the ocean where it will break down into tiny bits that last lifetimes.

Not So Fun Facts On Ocean Plastics

It's estimated that...

  • 90% of all trash in the ocean is plastic

  • every square mile of ocean contains 46,000 pieces of plastic

  • in some areas, plastic outnumbers plankton by 6 to 1