What You Need to Know about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch

What You Need to Know about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, sometimes called the Pacific Trash Vortex, is a hallmark of the water pollution that permeates modern culture. Litter from boats and land-based activities in Asia and North America has gathered into a spinning collection of garbage out in the Pacific Ocean. Here is what you need to know to understand the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

The Discovery

Pacific garbage patch
Image courtesy Atlas Obscura | Flickr

Captain Charles Moore, a surfer, sea captain, and scientific researcher, is credited with discovering the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in 1997. Moore had been in Hawaii for a sailing race and was traveling home to the mainland on his 50-foot catamaran. For fun, Moore decided to take an irregular route home through the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre. It took Moore and his crew a week to cross this gyre, and not a moment went by that they didn’t see some sort of plastic or human debris floating by. The name was coined by oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer, who, after discussing this discovery with Moore, started referring to it as the “eastern garbage patch.”

Two years later, Moore returned to this area with a fine-mesh net and made a daunting discovery. The tiny flecks of plastic, floating as far down as 10 meters from the surface, outweighed the plankton in that part of the ocean. Plastics had taken over.

What It Is

A common misconception is that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is an island of visible trash. In reality, the patch is mostly comprised of microplastics, some of which can’t even be seen by the naked eye and simply make the water look cloudy. This type of debris is prevalent in the garbage patch because plastics don’t biodegrade; they break into smaller and smaller pieces through photodegradation. Some examples of debris found in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch include Styrofoam cups, plastic bags, water bottles, plastic caps, fishing gear, and shoes.

Because of the expanse of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, there are no reasonable estimates of how much debris has accumulated in this area. Scientists are confident there is more debris on the seafloor beneath the garbage patch, and they are also confident about the origins of the trash in the patch. Eighty percent of it comes from the coasts of North America and Asia, while the other 20 percent is produced by cargo ships, offshore oil rigs, and other boaters.

How It Works

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch stretches from the west coast waters of North America all the way across the Pacific Ocean to Japan. The area of the patch near Japan is the Western Garbage Patch, while the Eastern Garbage Patch is located between the American states of Hawaii and California. These two zones are connected by a marine pathway just north of Hawaii called the North Pacific Subtropical Convergence Zone. This pathway is created when warm South Pacific waters meet up with cooler Arctic waters.

These three elements—the Western Garbage Patch, Eastern Garbage Patch, and Subtropical Convergence Zone—make up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. This area is bordered on all sides by the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre. A gyre is a system of ocean currents that runs in a circle. These currents surround a more stable, calm center, where the garbage is drawn in and trapped.

Consequences of the Patch

Pacific Garbage Patch
Image courtesy Hawk Word | Flickr

It’s not hard to imagine that a concentrated amount of plastic garbage in the ocean would be unhealthy for marine life. Much of this plastic can be mistaken by marine animals as food. Turtles have consumed plastic bags, mistaking them for were jellyfish. Albatross have fed plastic pellets to their chicks, thinking they were fish eggs. These animals often die from starvation or ruptured organs. Fishing nets trap marine mammals and cause drowning. Plastics also leach chemicals into the ocean as they break down, which enter the food chain when the plastic is consumed by marine animals.

The patch also changes how much sunlight reaches different parts of the ocean. This limits the growth of plankton and algae, two foundational building blocks of the marine food chain.

Clean-Up Efforts

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is so large that many don’t know how to effectively go about cleaning it up. One group estimates that 67 ships working for one year would only be able to clean up less than a percent of the patch. Because the patch is far away from any country’s coastline, no national government is willing to take responsibility for it. Furthermore, a marine cleanup of this magnitude would be expensive and potentially cause more harm to marine wildlife.

While cleanup is a daunting task, many groups have made efforts to halt the growth of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. They are in agreement that the most effective way to help solve this global issue is to reduce our use of disposable plastics and increase use of biodegradable alternatives.

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