SIM Social Impact Movement

What Is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch

Author: Gabi Jonikas

When throwing out the plastic packaging used to wrap a purchase from your latest online shopping spree, it’s easy to forget how that plastic packaging will likely outlive you. Plastic can take up to one thousand years to decompose. The material is created by heating up natural gas and oil, ingredients that are strong and capable of surviving far longer than a human lifespan. Many kinds of plastic are not recyclable, meaning that some plastic wrap and packaging are only used once before they’re sent to sit in a landfill for the next thousand years. Unfortunately, much of the plastic that we discard is not recycled or even makes it to a landfill. So it’s no surprise that over 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic can be found in an area in the Pacific Ocean called the great pacific garbage patch.

Garbage Patch Location

The great pacific garbage patch is a large collection of marine plastic in the North Pacific Ocean. The garbage patch is so large, it spans the entire width of the area between Japan and the United States.

The reason so much plastic comes together into a ginormous mass of marine trash is that the area is surrounded by the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre. A gyre occurs when ocean currents swirl around one calm, central area. The North Pacific Subtropical Gyre traps garbage in its currents and sends them to two calm central places; one closer to Japan and one closer to California.

Over the years, the amount of garbage collected by this gyre has grown, as there are 7.7 million square miles in the North Pacific Ocean that the gyre circles around, continually adding trash via ocean currents. 

The Danger of Plastic

It’s easy to envision large masses of trash floating around the ocean, and that is indeed what some of the great pacific garbage patch looks like.

However, most of the plastic within the garbage patch is made up of used fishing gear. According to National Geographic, 46% of the plastic is fishing nets while 8% is microplastics. Although plastic can take hundreds of years to biodegrade, being violently transferred by ocean current can cause the man-made plastic products to break into smaller pieces.

Often, plastic is broken down into these microplastics, which are pieces of plastic less than five millimeters long, yet are unable to degrade further. These tiny plastics pose a huge risk to wildlife and people who depend on fish for sustenance.

The great pacific garbage patch is even larger than it appears because of how much of the water in its currents contains microplastics that give the water a slightly clouded appearance but aren’t easily distinguishable as plastic waste. 

plastic is bad for the ocean sign

Microplastics

Microplastics can be harmful in spite of their small size. A congregation of microplastics along with other pieces of debris can block sunlight from travelling into the ocean, causing animals at the bottom of the food chain like plankton and algae to be deprived of sunlight and unable to survive.

If plankton and algae die, the fish that eat them will not have enough food and begin to die as well, causing a cycle that will result in the death of animals all the way up the food chain in the ocean.

Unfortunately, the cloudy presence of plastic-filled water is not the only threat caused by the great pacific garbage patch.

Plastic and microplastics in the ocean release chemicals like BPA that can cause health problems for people and problems for the environment.

Potential Solutions

The great pacific garbage patch is a problem so daunting that Charles Moore, the scientist who discovered it, claimed that if one country tried to clean it up on their own, they would go bankrupt.

Even removing the plastic would be complicated, as microplastics and tiny sea creatures are often the same size, so removing microplastics would likely lead to the accidental removal of animals.

The best we as individuals can do in an attempt to solve this problem is to prevent more plastic from entering the ocean in the first place, but governments around the world will need to work together to think of a long-term solution before more damage is done.