The Great Pacific Garbage Patch


Have you heard about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch? Let’s call it the GPGP, and it is the largest accumulation of oceanic plastic pollution in the world. The Ocean Clean Up is trying to clean it up. The GPGP was formed by the North Pacific Ocean current that draws plastic pollution into the center of ocean currents (the California current and North Equatorial current), where it is essentially trapped, and made up of a variety of plastic sizes, ranging from large fishnets, and debris to tiny microplastics.

Ocean currents create places that garbage gets trapped in, more than one of these garbage patches exist. [Source: The Weather Channel]

As you can see above[i], the currents are located in the Pacific Ocean, between the states of California and Hawaii. There are yet other garbage patches that exhibit the same unfortunate fate just West of the GPGP, a large mass closer to Japan, and a stretched-out version in the middle of the two.

Since the 1970s, the GPGP has been on humanity’s radar. Back then, the study only used a single boat to catch plastic particles right below the surface. This could not gauge the size of the problem. Another study in 2015 proved to be much more intensive with thirty boats catching all sizes of plastic. The Ocean Clean Up scientists caught 1.2 million pieces of plastic and took on the grueling task of categorizing it all, taking them two years. Still, the study did not understand the magnitude of the issue.

On the final “expedition,” as they called it, they used advanced sensors on planes combined with software that could estimate the weight of a sensed object. This helped to ultimately determine that there was over 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic in the garbage patch, weighing in at 80,000 tons of trash. That is 80 million pounds of pollution with 92% of it being large debris! [iii]

What is the problem with that? Garbage accumulation is still occurring, while only a small fraction of it can be cleaned up at a time. Marine life oftentimes confuse plastic for food since many feed right below the surface of waters where plastic floats. When the tinier pieces of microplastic are ingested, they have officially entered the food chain. Bioaccumulation is a process by which microplastics build-up within large organisms who consume smaller ones. So if you are wondering if we are eating microplastics due to bioaccumulation, the stone-cold answer is: yes. Even the plastic microfibers from fleece clothing contribute to this, and the effects on humans and the ecosystem are still unknown!

Even worse, as the large debris erodes from weathering conditions (like sun, wind, and waves) the plastic continues to break down into smaller pieces. A clean-up is needed right away.

The Ocean Clean Up is a non-profit organization from the Netherlands that was founded in 2013 to promote the obvious, cleaning up plastic from our oceans. Their initiative is based around developing technology to help to do this efficiently and effectively.

U-shaped membrane that will capture plastic pollution. [Source: The Ocean Clean-Up]

In the case of GPGP, they developed a U-shaped membrane that acts as a false coastline they call System 001. Working to position the U-shape in the opposite direction of the currents, it should successfully catch plastic pollution that they will periodically remove. Right now, you can track System 001 live by clicking here as it makes its way towards the garbage patch where it will take shape and remain for clean-up and monitoring. The goal is to clean-up the garbage patch within five years.

It is a good time for people to start considering this fact: 80% of ocean pollution starts off as land pollution. [ii] So, another aspect of this dynamic is how we are changing our behaviors on-land to prevent ocean pollution in the first place. As it is, researchers can tell where garbage will end up depending on where on-land it comes from and the currents surrounding that area. Here are some small changes you can make to prevent ocean pollution:

  • Use plastic products responsibly. This includes reusing plastic whenever possible (which reduces plastic consumption) and absolutely recycling it. Think about that old phrase reduce, reuse, recycle.
  • Properly dispose of electronic and hazardous waste like old devices that do not work, household cleaners, unwanted medicines, auto fluids, old paint, etc. You can easily do this by visiting a SAFE Disposal Event hosted by NYC Dept. of Sanitation this fall 2018. There is an upcoming Queens SAFE Disposal Event on October 27th: for more information please click here.
  • Volunteer your time to clean-up your local coastlines and beaches.
  • Spread awareness and advocate for a cleaner ocean!

After all, prevention is always cheaper than remediation.

 

References

[i] Dolce, Chris. Jul 2015. Beautiful Maps Show the World’s Oceans in Motion. The Weather Channel. Retrieved from https://weather.com/science/weather-explainers/news/ocean-currents-eddies-temperature-images.

[ii] National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Jun 2018. What is the biggest source of pollution in the ocean? National Ocean Service. Retrieved from https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/pollution.html.

[iii] The Ocean Clean Up. 2018. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Retrieved from https://www.theoceancleanup.com/great-pacific-garbage-patch/.

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