The ocean is full of beautiful reefs, diverse wildlife, and…. tons of plastic. The density of plastic is particularly bad in one specific region known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch developed due to the way currents in the Pacific interact with the plastic debris floating in the ocean. The convergence zone created by several major currents gathers all the lighter-than-water garbage into high density patches, about halfway between California and Hawaii.
It’s estimated that the patch is made up of 80,000 tonnes of plastic, or even up to 100,000 tonnes depending on how you define the border. This is over an area of 1.6 million square kilometers.
Now you might be imagining a giant island of bottle caps and food wrappers. In fact, the patch is not solid. There’s no island or ground formed by garbage. It’s more of a loose accumulation of floating debris, and then there’s microplastics mixed throughout the water as well.
The effects of sunlight, water, and friction cause the plastic to break down into tiny particles, which scientists call microplastics. Microplastics float along with the water at different depths and blend in “like flecks of pepper floating throughout a bowl of soup”. Microplastics are incredibly difficult to clean up.
While some of the patch is likely consumer-level trash, a significant proportion is fishing industry waste. Fishing nets alone are estimated to account for 46% of the trash. There’s also other industry waste – eel traps, crates, baskets, rope, etc.
What Can We Do About It?
The good news: there are some efforts developing to clean up the garbage patches in the ocean. The Ocean Clean-up is planning on launching a plastic cleaning device in the summer of 2018. They hope to clean up 50% of the plastic and eventually take on some of the other garbage patches forming.
It’s possible that some of the plastic-eating bacteria that have been discovered could be implemented to reduce plastic waste. Consumers choosing compostable and reusable products instead of disposable ones could reduce the amount of plastic waste as well. Fishing industries could take steps to reduce the amount of gear lost and abandoned in the ocean.
On a personal level, for World Oceans Day you could attend an event to learn more about ocean issues.
Want to learn more about the world’s oceans? You can start with this post from the Sporcle Blog: How Many Oceans Are There? Meet The Southern Ocean