The Great Pacific Garbage Patch

by Zina Dolan

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Floating in the Pacific, there is a patch of garbage spanning 1.6 million square kilometers. Comprised of almost two trillion pieces of plastic, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is the largest accumulation of ocean plastic in the world, according to The Ocean Cleanup. This total amounts to 250 pieces of plastic for every human.

The plastic accumulates in clusters due to circular ocean currents called gyres. In addition to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, located between California and Hawaii, there are four other major gyres collecting plastic throughout the world. Containing an estimated 80,000 tons of plastic, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is the largest on the planet.

Despite popular assumptions that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a physical island, it is actually a high-density concentration of plastics, especially microplastics, which often cannot be seen by the naked eye. In order to understand the size of the patch, scientists sampled the area using 30 boats, 652 surface nets, and two aerial flights.

Like all ocean plastic, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is harmful to marine life. Due to similarities in size and color, animals often confuse small plastics for food; this can cause malnutrition, sickness, and suffocation. Larger marine debris, such as discarded fishing nets or six-pack rings, can cause marine life to become entangled and unable to swim free. Reflecting the severity of the issue, scientists at the United Nations Ocean Conference estimated the oceans will contain more weight in plastics than fish by the year 2050.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch affects human health, too. As the chemicals in plastic are absorbed into the marine food web, humans will eventually ingest them as well. The future effects of plastics in the human body and marine food chain are both unknown.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), microplastics may be the most dangerous plastics, defined as those less than five millimeters in length. Because these plastics are not biodegradable, they simply break down into smaller and smaller pieces of microplastic over time. These microplastics are particularly dangerous because they enter the marine food chain undetected.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch challenges the international community to respond collectively in the face of environmental disaster. First discovered by NOAA in 1988, cleanup efforts for the patch did not begin until thirty years later in September 2018.

Efforts are led by The Ocean Cleanup, a Dutch nonprofit organization. The Ocean Cleanup’s solution is called System 001, a 2,000 foot long floating barrier with a 10 foot skirt that hangs below it to catch surface plastics without entangling marine life. Setting sail from San Francisco, System 001 collects plastics and returns them to shore to recycle. Unfortunately, in January 2019, a 60 foot section of System 001 broke off in the middle of the Pacific, and the entire collection system had to be towed back to shore.

A single nonprofit is attempting to solve the world’s greatest accumulation of ocean plastic. Without any international support or resources, more challenges for the small organization’s cleanup will certainly arise. Furthermore, the global community’s inability to act suggests a foreboding future for combating other environmental crises.

In the meantime, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is continuing to grow.