In an Earth plentiful of space and natural resources, it’s easy to forget the environmental impact of something as small as plastic. Yet, we continue to use plastic every day. From plastic bottles, plastic bags, to plastic packaging, human beings consume an irrational amount of plastic waste. Where does it go? Well, no other than our waters leading to the topic of this blog: The Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The Sustainability Office is here to discuss what the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is, its effects on our environment, and the projects that are underway in solving this global mess.
What is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and how was it formed?
A major plastic accumulation zone is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP), the world’s largest zone of accumulated plastic among five (refer to the figure below). Located in the North Pacific Ocean, between Hawaii and California, the GPGP covers an area of approximately 1.6 million km2 (The Ocean Cleanup, n.d.). Rather than picturing it as a “patch” or island of trash, view it as large concentration of debris spreading from the ocean surface to the ocean floor. Its exact size, content, and location are sometimes difficult to predict (NOAA, 2021) since it changes with time.
The GPGP gradually came to life with the help of a system of rotating ocean currents, known as gyres (NOAA, n.d.). Due to the Coriolis Effect, ocean debris circulate in these gyres, break down into small particles, and settle over a huge ocean column. However, the source of the GPGP began with human overconsumption and disposal. It’s a vicious cycle that will only worsen without sufficient awareness, support, and concern.
Types of plastics found in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch
The GPGP contains at least 80,000 tonnes of floating plastics ranging in size, from megaplastics to microplastics. According to the Ocean Cleanup (n.d.), there are four class sizes when distinguishing plastic:
- Megaplastics: Plastic waste above 50cm.
- Macroplastics: Plastic waste varying from 5 to 50cm.
- Mesoplastics: Smaller plastic pieces ranging from 0.5 to 5cm.
- Microplastics: Plastic fragments as small as 5mm long, making it almost invisible to the naked eye. Some examples of microplastics are plastic fibers, such as nylon, or plastic pellets found in personal care products.
The impact on marine life
One of the evident concerns of debris build-up is the threat that it poses on marine life. Each year, over 1 million birds and 100,000 marine animals are affected by the plastic pollution from the five garbage patches (Condor Ferries, n.d.). Specifically, nearly 700 species worldwide are affected with 86% being sea turtles, 44% being seabirds, and roughly 43% being other sea mammals (Environmental Protection Agency, 2021). Due to the size and colour of plastics, specifically microplastics, many animals confuse it for food. Since the plastics are difficult to remove, they are often consumed by marine animals, further threatening their health, behaviour, and existence.
Here are some statistics and images to keep in mind:
- There are 180x more plastic than food at the surface of the GPGP (The Ocean Cleanup, n.d.)
- Fishing nets account for 46% of the GPGP (Lebreton et al., 2018)
- 12-14,000 tons of plastic are ingested by North Pacific fish yearly
- 74% of a sea turtle’s diet consists of plastic debris
The impact on humans
What many fail to remember is that plastic doesn’t vanish after their disposal. If anything, it’s tucked away in our day-to-day lives. The toxins from plastics enter the water of rivers, lakes, and streams that we consume each day (Andrews, 2021). In other words, drinking from local water and consuming seafood at times also implies ingesting microplastics. Although the intake of microplastics may not sound severe for some, over time, the consumption of thousands of particles can cause serious health impacts (Gibbens, 2019). Therefore, the GPGP inevitably affects humans as well. Moreover, plastic pollution indirectly affects humans through the means of the fishing and tourism industries. In fishing, many discovered plastic bags stuck in propellers and fishing nets wasting precious time and money to fix (Goodwin, 2020). Meanwhile, in the tourism sector, the presence of plastic waste not only deters tourists but also influences the appearance of the coastal environment. Without the vibrant fish and coral reefs, and an insane amount of plastic, both industries who contribute to the local and global economy are at a loss.
The Ocean Cleanup – The Largest Ocean Clean-up in History
Despite the severity of the GPGP, there are several past and ongoing projects carried by the Ocean Cleanup Project, a non-profit organization that is developing advanced technologies to prevent plastic build-up, while removing the plastic already accumulated (Ocean Cleanup, n.d.). The goal of the Ocean Cleanup is to remove 90% of ocean plastic pollution by 2040. The organization is working every day to ensure the clean-up of this garbage patch. In June 2019, the organization completed its first mission of hauling waste deploying system 001/B, a slow-speed U-shaped barrier that retained the plastic in the retention zone (Ocean Cleanup, 2019).
Check out some of the past and planned projects of this wonderful organization!
What can you do?
One of the key messages to remember is that individual action is the first step in strengthening our commitment to minimizing plastic waste in the GPGP. Every plastic material we cut out stops the problem from expanding in our oceans. Here are 4 recommendations to consider when getting rid of the garbage patch:
- Support the ongoing work: This can come in the form of a donation, partnership, or merchandise purchase. Please note that the Ocean Cleanup sunglasses are made from plastic removed from the GPGP; proceeds go the continuation of the clean-up.
- Join the team: The Ocean Cleanup is looking for passionate volunteers worldwide to help tackle the global issue by supporting the engineering, research, and communication teams. Check out the Ocean Cleanup volunteer application for more information.
- Spread the word: Follow the movement on social media (@theoceancleanup), watch documentaries on the GPGP, such as Plastic Paradise, or encourage conversation.
- Acknowledge your plastic usage: As much as possible, try your best to eliminate plastics from your lifestyle by investing in zero-waste supplies. Not only are plastics detrimental to our environment, marine species, and us, but they require extensive amounts of energy and resources to produce. Do your part because it truly makes all the difference.
We hope you learned something new about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, its effects to both wildlife and humans, and actions to make a difference. Plastic from all the garbage patches may seem like an insurmountable global problem, but with the collective action of each person along with current projects, like the Ocean Cleanup, we still have a fighting chance.
Condor Ferries. Marine & Ocean Pollution - Statistics & Facts 202-2021. Condor Ferries. Retrieved from: https://www.condorferries.co.uk/marine-ocean-pollution-statistics-facts [Online].
Environmental Protection Agency. (2021). Impacts of Mismanaged Trash. EPA. Retrieved from: https://www.epa.gov/trash-free-waters/impacts-mismanaged-trash [Online].
Gibbins, S. (2019). You eat thousands of bits of plastic every year. National Geographic. Retrieved from: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/article/you-eat-thousands-of-bits-of-plastic-every-year [Online].
Goodwin, J. (2020). How Does Plastic Pollution Affect Humans, Our Health, and the Environment? Grow Ensemble. Retrieved from: https://growensemble.com/how-does-plastic-pollution-affect-humans/#Effects_of_Plastic_Pollution_on_the_Human_Body [Online].
Lebreton, L., Slat, B., Ferrari, F. et al. Evidence that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is rapidly accumulating plastic. Sci Rep 8, 4666 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-018-22939-w
NOAA. (2021). What is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch? National Ocean Service. Retrieved from: https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/garbagepatch.html [Online].
The Ocean Cleanup. (2019). Mission One Completed – the plans to make products from the plastic catch. The Ocean Cleanup. Retrieved from: https://theoceancleanup.com/updates/mission-one-completed-the-plans-to-make-products-from-the-plastic-catch/ [Online].
The Ocean Cleanup. (n.d.). What is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch? The Ocean Cleanup. Retrieved from: https://theoceancleanup.com/great-pacific-garbage-patch/ [Online].