The Great Pacific Garbage Patch

Posted in: Conservation, Environment
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Did you know the largest landfill in the world is not on the land but in the Pacific Ocean? This garbage dump is a collection of marine debris that ends up in oceans, seas, and other large bodies of water.

Any kind of trash like plastic bottles, wastes from ships, dumping of toxic industrial waste, medical wastes, etc get in to ocean is called marine debris. Marine debris has become a big pollution problem which is affecting all of the world’s oceans and existing sea life. This trash or debris is causing injuries and deaths of numerous marine animals and birds. They get harmed either by entangling in it or by eating it.

This debris is estimated to weigh about 3 million tons and to cover an area twice the size of Texas (Greenpeace). This Pacific Garbage dump is not visible to satellites as it is in the form of marine soup whose main ingredient is floating plastic debris. This area is in the middle of the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre.

An ocean gyre is a series of currents that move in a circular pattern

An ocean gyre is a series of currents that move in a circular pattern. These currents are formed by the Earth’s wind patterns and the forces created by the rotation of the planet. This circular pattern of the gyre draws in debris and the centre of gyre is calm and stable, so the garbage is trapped here. The water circulates clockwise in a slow spiral in this area and the winds are light. The currents force any floating material into the low energy central area of the gyre and prevent other materials from escaping. Therefore this area is filled with trash and is considered as the largest landfill in the world.

In fact the gyre has actually formed two large masses of ever-accumulating trash, known as the Western and Eastern Pacific Garbage Patches…collectively known as Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The Eastern Garbage Patch floats between Hawaii and California and the Western Garbage Patch forms east of Japan and west of Hawaii. Both the patches are massive and collect trash from all over the world. These patches are linked by a thin 6,000-mile long current known as Subtropical Convergence Zone. Research flights showed the accumulation of the trash in this Convergence Zone as well.

This Pacific Garbage dump is also known as Great Pacific Garbage Patch or Pacific Trash Vortex. This patch was discovered in 1997 by Californian sailor, surfer and volunteer environmentalist named Charles Moore. He was sailing from Hawaii to California after competing in a yachting race. Moore and his crew saw infinite pieces of plastic surrounding his ship while crossing the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre.

Why this Great Pacific Garbage Patch is considered a big environmental disaster?

The majority of marine debris is plastic and is causing major problems for marine animals and birds. Numerous marine animals and sea birds become entangled in marine debris or ingest it, which can cause them serious harm and often results in their death. Plastics constitute about 90 percent of all trash floating in the world’s oceans (LA Times). This plastic garbage is increasing at very alarming rate, Great Pacific Garbage Patch has increased 100-fold since the 1970s. (The Telegraph)

The main problem with plastic is its resistance to degrade or in other words plastics do not bio-degrade. These materials persist in the environment as they are not degraded by any natural process. Plastics don’t bio-degrade, but they photo-degrade. Photo-degradation is a process in which plastics in the ocean are weathered into progressively smaller pieces by the action of sunlight. These tiny pieces have been found suspended in seawater and on the seabed in sediments. These small bits of plastic produced by photo-degradation are called nurdles. These nurdles act like sponges as they have the dangerous property of soaking up toxic chemicals. These toxins are concentrated in the nurdles and can be very harmful to marine life in the gyre.

Fortunately, this environmental concern has started getting attention now. Many people and organization are trying to help this urgent cause by getting people and Government’s attention to protect the oceans.

Another name which has helped highlighting this issue is Chris Jordan. His beautiful yet disturbing pictures have done a tremendous job to draw attention to the plight of the marine animals. Through his photographs you can feel the pain of innocent birds, who are crying for help as the plastic is quickly and painfully killing them, their environment and their overall way of life. To feel the real situation watch the trailer for Midway Film here. It is a trailer of the documentary that shows the effects of plastics on the lives of birds at Midway Island in the North Pacific Ocean, more than 2000 miles from the nearest continent. The nesting babies are fed lethal quantities of plastic by their parents, who consider the trash for food.

Gyre / Chris Jordan

On the midway island, out of 500,000 albatross chicks are born there each year, about 200,000 die, generally from dehydration or starvation. Research showed that chicks that died from those causes had twice as much plastic in their stomachs as those that died for other reasons. (LA Times)

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However Albatross are not the only victims, it is estimated that about 1 million seabirds choke or get tangled in plastic nets or other debris every year. Not only that about 100,000 seals, sea lions, whales, dolphins, other marine mammals and sea turtles suffer the same fate. (Greenpeace)

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Marine debris will also disturb the food webs in the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre. As nurdles and other trash collected on the surface of the ocean will block sunlight from reaching plankton and algae below. Plankton and algae produce their own nutrients from oxygen, carbon, and sunlight. If these are threatened, all the fish, turtles or other marine animals that feed on algae and plankton will have less food and they may die and predator species such as tuna, sharks, and whales will get less food and this way the whole food web will be affected.

Stop the Great Pacific Garbage Patch from growing: We made this mess, we need to clean it up, but the tragedy is…Great Pacific Garbage Patch is so far from any country’s coastline and no Government is taking the responsibility or providing any funds to clean it up. For cleaning up the gyres, only non-governmental organizations such as 5 Gyres and Algalita Marine Research Institute with their founder Captain Charles Moore have studied micro-plastic pollution and its effect on marine ecosystems.

Cleaning up this marine debris is not possible as removing the trash that’s already there could harm some marine ecosystems. Trash retrieval from the gyres poses problems because of the huge size of ocean, distinct nature of accumulations and the fact that most of this plastic is in tiny pieces and it’s everywhere. There is hope in one particular project though called “The Ocean Cleanup” a crowd funding project stated by Boyan Slat. A cleanup solution combined with prevention and raising the public awareness of the problem. Present condition requires the urgent adoption of more responsible waste strategies, at local, national and international levels, with the goal to prevent the production of waste at source. There is no single solution to the plastic waste problem but 5 Gyres has a challenge for you to help solve the problem.

Lets pledge together to ‘stand up’ for this cause by redesigning our relationship with plastic.

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