The Sobering Reality of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch
Have you heard of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch? It’s basically a gigantic trash heap in the middle of the North Pacific – but that’s the simplest description.
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which is actually comprised of two separate patches (the Western Garbage Patch near Japan and the Eastern Garbage Patch between Hawaii and California) is truly staggering from an environmental standpoint. It’s a vast zone filled with spinning debris caught in an ocean gyre, or a system of circular currents. There are four currents in the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre that move clockwise around roughly 7.7 million square miles. And in the middle sits the garbage patch.
It’s stable and calm in the eye of this storm, and the circular movement of the gyre pulls debris right to the center. There, it becomes trapped. Debris in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch exists because it is largely not biodegradable. You know what, specifically, doesn’t biodegrade? Plastic. Just like the plastic used in single-use disposable water bottles.
That’s what makes up the majority of these garbage patches, which sounds like miles of trash floating on the ocean. The reality is much worse.
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is almost entirely comprised of tiny pieces of plastic. They’re called microplastics, and some of them are so small, they aren’t even visible to the naked eye.
It makes sense, when you stop to think about it. Plastic is durable, cheap and malleable, all reasons that it’s ubiquitous as a consumer and industrial product. And because it doesn’t biodegrade, it simply breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces. In the ocean, that process is called photodegradation. According to National Geographic, scientists have gathered as many as 750,000 microplastic bits from just one square kilometer in the garbage patch.
And most of it can be attributed to plastic from bottle caps, bags, Styrofoam cups and, you guessed it, water bottles.
Microplastics don’t pile up to make a trash island; instead, they make the entire garbage patch cloudy, and mixed in you’ll find noticeable bits of trash, like fishing nets and computers.
Denser debris is suspended up to even a few yards beneath the water’s surface, and it’s likely that more trash has settled to the seafloor. All of this makes it virtually impossible to measure the actual scale and size of this garbage patch.
But we know enough to know it’s bad. Marine debris is incredibly harmful to marine life. Microplastics block light from the algae and plankton below, which is going to impact the entire food chain, if it hasn’t already begun. There’s also the issue of pollutants leaching from microplastics.
So what can be done? There’s no easy answer. Cleaning up the mess isn’t feasible – not only would it potentially harm marine life just as small as the microplastics, it would take decades. No country will take responsibility for this mess, either, because no one wants to be on the hook for paying to deal with it.
Explorers, researchers and scientists are in agreement that changing our plastic habit is the best way to tackle the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. It starts with eliminating or drastically reducing disposable plastics, like single use water bottles.
It makes you realize there’s really something to banning the bottle, doesn’t it?