What exactly is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch? Often described as a ‘trash island’, it is the largest accumulation of ocean garbage in the world. More specifically, it is a gyre of plastic particles, sludge and unidentified debris swirling around in the north central Pacific Ocean. Sound like an environmental nightmare? It is.
With something as unfathomable as a giant, ever-growing, patch of ocean trash, there are a lot of unanswered questions out there. So we’re going to cover some of the big ones with some real deal Great Pacific Garbage Patch facts. Ready?
How big is Great Pacific Garbage Patch, really?
Unfortunately, the patch continues to grow every day, but it’s estimated to be roughly 1.6 million square kilometers in size. Having a hard time picturing that? That’s more than twice the size of Texas or 3 times the size of France!
Where did all this trash come from?
The debris is collecting from locations all around the Pacific Rim, from California to Japan. It can take ‘land trash’ roughly 6 years to get to the patch from North America or a year from contributing Asian countries. Which is where the majority is suspected to come from. This shouldn’t be too much of a surprise, as China, the Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, and Thailand are the world’s top contributors of Ocean trash. But North America is far from off the hook, with the US contributing over 240 million pounds of garbage to the Ocean every year.
What exactly is the Patch made of?
While you might be imagining large pieces of garbage and billions of water bottles tangled together in a huge mass, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is largely made of tiny microplastics. This is one of the reasons it’s so hard to actually measure the exact size of the patch, as it’s not always visible to the naked eye. And while our land trash makes up the majority of the debris, roughly 20% of the total patch is made of lost or abandoned fishing nets or ‘ghost nets’ as they’re sometimes called.
How does the Great Pacific Garbage Patch affect humans?
Hopefully, you care about the global environmental implications of this swirling garbage nightmare (we know you do!) but it’s fair to ask, “How does this affect me?”. The short answer is that sea life consumes the plastic and then humans eat sea life. The question is no longer “Are we consuming plastic in our seafood?” but instead “How much plastic is safe for human consumption?”. Already a vegetarian? Then perhaps you’d like to know…
How does the Great Pacific Garbage Patch affect sea life?
As plastics break down from water and sun exposure, they become what is referred to as microplastics. These can range from fingernail size to itty bitty grains of plastic sand. Unfortunately, marine life can have a very hard time distinguishing between tasty treats, like plankton and toxic plastics and gobble them up. While birds and turtles will graze on the top layer of the ‘island’ that we see above water, fish will feast on the 70% of the sea trash that sinks below the surface. Yet, ingesting the toxic debris isn’t the only dire impact the patch has on sea life. As we mentioned above, about 20% of the total ‘island’ is made of cast-off fishing nets which entangle a wide variety of marine life and will often result in their death.
Ok, so should we all just give up?
We get it, this sounds like an unfixable nightmare of our own doing. So should we all throw in the towel and accept it? Absolutely not! On a large scale, it’s worth noting that The Ocean Clean Up has been working on fine tuning something they call the System 001, a way of catching ocean garbage while leaving sea life undisturbed. It’s not yet perfect but it’s being reworked as of early 2019 with the intentions of heading back out to Great Pacific Garbage Patch to gather the debris and bring it back to land for sorting and recycling. That sounds optimistic, but what can you do on a personal level?
But what can I do about it?
It’s no big shocker that the greatest contributor to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is our global relationship to disposable plastics. So making changes in your personal life to change how you use (or don’t use!) plastics can help us avoid even more patches from in the future. Consider not only what plastics you’re using but what you’re doing with them after you’re done. Going completely plastic-free and zero-waste can be a hard task to take on but making small changes like bringing your own cutlery or avoiding sandwich bags will make a difference. And by making it look easy, you can help encourage others to do the same. It’s easy to feel like your personal contributions won’t have any effect, but trash islands like this one (and it’s not the only one, just the biggest!) happen because of consumer acceptance of virgin plastics. If companies stop profiting on new plastics, they’ll stop making them. The power is in our hands and in our wallets!