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Plastic and the Pacific Garbage Patch

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Most oceanographers estimate that humans have only seen about 95% of the ocean. Our oceans teem with life and mysteries that we haven’t yet explored. What’s a narwhal’s horn for? What is that lost city near Japan? What’s the milky sea phenomenon?

But before any of those questions can be answered, we need to confront a not-so-mysterious problem: ocean garbage patches.

While crossing the ocean for the Transpacific Yacht Race in 1997, Captain Charles Moore discovered a huge area saturated with garbage, much of it composed of indistinguishable microplastics that fogged the water. Further study since then has confirmed that this problem is bigger than we ever thought at first.

What is it?

The Great Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch, also known as the Pacific Trash Vortex, is actually made up of two different concentrations of marine debris, stirred and encompassed by the North Pacific Subtropical Convergence Zone. The Eastern Garbage Patch is located between California and Hawaii, while the Western Garbage Patch is located near Japan. There are more ocean garbage patches throughout the world, and they’re growing at an alarming rate as plastic becomes more and more ubiquitous.

Now, while “garbage patch” probably makes you think of a colossal floating landfill, it’s much more complicated than that. Sometimes waste is on the surface, but often it’s right under, so that you could sail through it without ever seeing it. About 70% of marine debris sinks down to the bottom of the ocean, so the seafloor beneath each garbage patch probably just looks like a giant landfill that will never decompose. These garbage patches are constantly moving and fluctuating, concentrated in certain areas due to ocean currents, although much of the garbage is spread around the entire ocean.

This marine debris is mostly composed of plastic, since plastic never actually breaks down into its composite elements through natural processes. Instead, it breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces which easily trick birds and marine animals into thinking that they’re a good food source.

What impact does it have?

These garbage patches are more than gross. They have a powerful impact on marine life, and our ocean’s delicately-balanced ecosystem. Here are just a few ways that we’ve seen it impact plants and animals that live in the ocean:

  • In some areas, there is 6 times more plastic than plankton. This plastic blocks sunlight from reaching down and fostering the growth of phytoplankton and algae that support other ocean life.
  • Many larger sea creatures and birds are mistaking plastic for a food source. Sea turtles mistake plastic bags for jellyfish, birds scoop up plastic and feed it to their young, and baleen whales sift thousands of pounds of microplastic into their systems, instead of the krill that will support life. Sometimes animals choke on the waste and die instantly, but more often, they’re poisoned by the toxicity of these plastics, their internal organs rupture, or they slowly die of starvation since they can’t get nutrition from the plastic, but it fills their bellies and leaves no room for real food.
  • 5-10% of the world’s fish have some plastic in them.

Attempts to clean up

Because these garbage patches are far enough off the coast from any country, no one will take responsibility for cleanup. It’s a complex problem, since it’s hard to find concentrations of debris over such a huge area, debris is both on the surface and under, and the plastics break down so small that they’re hard to contain. It’s also difficult because filtering large areas of water of such small particles will inevitably do more harm to the organisms living in the water.

According to Moore, cleanup would bankrupt any country, and according to National Geographic, “The National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration’s Marine Debris Program has estimated that it would take 67 ships one year to clean up less than one percent of the North Pacific Ocean.”

What can you do about it?

Since cleanup is such a colossal task that we don’t know how to even get started, the best thing that you can do is to cut back on plastic usage and rely more on biodegradable resources. You may have heard about people who have decided to go entirely plastic-free and been overwhelmed at the scope of the undertaking. But you don’t have to go plastic-free in order to make a difference! There are a million small ways that you can cut back that won’t even interrupt your life. So start doing 1 or more of these today:

  • Always bring your own shopping bag to the store.
  • Also bring vegetable bags for shopping in the produce section.
  • Re-use plastic containers (like those for yogurt or salsa).
  • Only buy cardboard cartons for eggs, milk, and laundry soap.
  • Buy less plastic toys and try to find wooden or cloth ones instead.
  • Recycle everything that you can! You’d be amazed how many recyclables don’t get taken care of properly. Even if your community doesn’t have curbside recycling, there are other ways.
  • Take note of all takeaway containers and how much plastic is there. Eat in, or pick up your food from places with biodegradable waste.
  • Stop buying plastic water bottles! There’s really no point to them. Get yourself a re-usable bottle that you can wash and drink from for years.
  • Look into biodegradable toothbrushes.

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    • raburgeson

      Plastic is a problem. As far as the city off Japan they have had years to work that out. It is a little late to wonder about it now.

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