Scientists believe that by 2050, there could be as much plastic as there are fish in the ocean if current patterns continue. Marine plastic is a global issue because it accumulates in gyres or large systems of circulating currents.
The area in the center of a gyre tends to be stable and the circular motion draws plastic trash into the center where it becomes trapped. Many organizations, businesses, and individuals are concerned about the problem and are making efforts to address it before it’s too late.
What is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch?
In 1997, Charles Moore, a racing boat captain, made a startling discovery while sailing from Hawaii back to California after a yachting race.
He said that there he was in the middle of the ocean and as far as the eye could see were soap bottles, shampoo caps, fishing floats, and plastic bags. Months later, when discussing this with Curtis Ebbesmeyer, the oceanographer came up with the term ‘Eastern Garbage Patch.’
There are five gyres in the ocean, two in the Pacific Ocean, one in the Indian Ocean and two in the Atlantic Ocean. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, located halfway between California and Hawaii, is the largest.
It is made up of the Western Garbage Patch, which is found southeast of Japan, and the Eastern Garbage Patch, that’s found between the U.S. states of Hawaii and California. The two patches are linked together by the North Pacific Convergence Zone, where cold water from the Arctic meets warm water from the South Pacific.
The floating garbage is spread over the surface of the water and all the way down to the ocean floor. It ranges in size, from abandoned fishing nets to microplastics, which are smaller than 5mm in size. According to researchers from The Ocean Cleanup project, it is dispersed over a surface area of approximately 1.6 million square kilometers.
Plastic is not biodegradable so it keeps breaking down into smaller and smaller pieces that are difficult to detect, even via satellite imagery. The microplastics make the water look rather like a cloudy soup that’s intermixed with larger items like shoes and fishing gear.
Plastic trash is everywhere in the ocean – in a study published in the journal Science Advances, researchers found it in the Arctic Ocean. When they measured the plastic debris in waters near the North Pole, they found that it was abundant and widespread in the Greenland and Barents seas.
Due to the small size of the debris and the region’s low population, the researchers concluded that much of the Arctic’s plastic pollution was coming from distant sources.
Where does the trash come from?
More than 300 million tons of plastic are produced annually, and only 9 percent of plastic scrap gets recycled. According to the United Nations, China used to buy about 45 percent of plastic scrap from the U.S. between 1992 and 2017.
In January 2018, China stopped buying it because it found that too much trash was mixed in with recyclable material to make it worth importing. Since then, richer countries have tried to dump their plastic scrap on less developed countries, mostly in Southeast Asia.
Countries like Malaysia and the Philippines are refusing to be dumping grounds for scrap that is supposed to be recyclable but isn’t. Recycling experts are hoping that the pressure from Asia will lead to a reduction in the production of single-use, low-grade plastics.
Without China, plastics are being either illegally incinerated, dumped into the ocean, or ending up in poorly maintained landfills. Most of the debris comes from land-based sources, such as Asia and North America.
The rest comes from cargo ships, boaters, and offshore oil rigs that dump debris into the water.
The impact of the marine debris
Marine debris is harmful to marine life. Fish, seabirds and other marine life mistakenly eat plastic and other debris. For example, albatrosses may think plastic resin pellets are fish eggs and feed them to their chicks which die of ruptured organs or starvation.
Marine animals, like seals, become entangled in discarded plastic fishing nets. These are often called “ghost nets” because they continue to fish without being under the control of fishermen.
When plastics break down, they leach out chemicals that have been linked to environmental and health problems. They also absorb pollutants from the seawater that enter the food chain when eaten by marine life.
Plastic chemicals, like BPA, are absorbed by the human body and cause problems such as interrupting the endocrine system. Microplastics and other trash can block sunlight from reaching plankton and algae, thus disturbing marine food webs.
Animals, such as turtles and fish that feed on the algae and plankton, have less food and if their populations decrease, apex predators like tuna and sharks also have less food and decrease too.
What is being done about the problem?
In the few decades since we have been using plastic, the waste problem has reached a global scale and it will become chronic unless urgent actions are taken. Microplastics are so small in size and are constantly being spread out and mixed, so finding a cost-effective technological solution is a daunting task.
The NOAA Marine Debris Program has been striving to find solutions since its inception in 2006. It focuses on marine debris prevention and removal from shorelines and coastal areas where it is easier to pick up.
It has stated that it would take 67 ships a year to clean up less than one percent of the North Pacific Ocean, so cleaning it up is not really a practical solution.
Charles Moore, who first brought attention to the patch, continues to raise awareness through his Algalita Marine Research Foundation. He has led several expeditions to sample plastic fragments in the Pacific.
The main aim of his organization is not to pick trash out of the sea but to fundamentally shift a way of thinking on land. It wants to empower young people to be agents for change.
The Garbage Patch State – Wasteland includes installations, videos, and performances to raise awareness about the hazard of plastic debris in the oceans. Maria Christina Finucci began in April 2013 with an installation artwork at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris.
It consisted of hundreds of plastic bags filled with water and many brightly colored plastic caps arranged in front of a mirror. Viewers could see their reflections in the mirror, becoming protagonists in the piece.
In partnership with the Plastics Oceans Foundation and the website LADbible, Al Gore, former vice president of the U.S., submitted a petition to the United Nations to recognize a new country called the Trash Isles.
Al Gore is the honorary first citizen of the country which has passports, currency (debris) and a flag created from recycled materials. It also has a government, a communications system, and more than 100,000 citizens. The campaign is meant to draw attention to the “country-sized problem” in the North Pacific Ocean.
Plastic Oceans Foundation is an organization that makes solutions-focused films and digital content. It originated as part of the team that distributed the award-winning film, A Plastic Ocean, and has been a fully independent nonprofit organization since 2016.
The Plastic Pollution Coalition is a growing global alliance of over 1,000 thought leaders, businesses and organizations. It is working towards a world free of plastic pollution, using action campaigns and social media to drive home its message.
It urges us to make the transition from toxic, disposable plastics that impact humans, animals, the ocean, and the environment to reusable or biodegradable materials.
What can you do as an individual?
Whether it’s keeping reusable grocery bags in your car, passing up on plastic bottles and using a refillable water bottle at the gym or saying ‘no’ to plastic straws, the best way to stop plastic pollution is to keep it out of the waste stream.
- Refuse single-use plastic.
- Purchase items sold in sustainable packaging, even if it makes them a little more expensive.
- Store your food in glass containers.
- Recycle properly and don’t litter.
- Avoid plastic microbeads in personal care products.
- Support organizations working towards change and take part in their action campaigns, such as cleaning up local beaches.
The choices you make as an individual can put pressure on businesses to make changes. Already many businesses have become involved in changing product designs and packaging due to consumer demand for alternatives.
Give businesses you buy from positive feedback when you see them making an effort to use less plastic and they will have even more incentive to make changes.
A final word
Plastic pollution is a global problem caused by humans. Improper waste management, littering, dumping and stormwater runoff all contribute to the problem. Everyone, including government, businesses, and individuals, need to make some meaningful changes if they want to be part of the solution.
If we can prevent the trash from entering the waterways and oceans, we have a fighting chance to reduce the future growth of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.