Introduction to the Great Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch 

  

    Did you know that out in the Pacific Ocean, approximately 1,000 miles off the coast of California is the largest garbage collection in the world? It is true, a massive floating sea of garbage, primarily plastic, that is twice the size of Texas.

    The Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch gained attention when Charles Moore, an oceanographer, happened upon it in 1997. Captain Moore grew up on the Pacific Ocean and on his return trip from a yacht race to Hawaii, he decided to veer off his normal course and explore a bit of ocean he had not seen before. Captain Moore headed toward the Northern Pacific subtropical gyre. The gyre is typically avoided by sailors due to the calm waters known as the doldrums and the lack of wind needed to sail. The gyre is like a desert - a slow, deep, clockwise spinning area of the ocean.[1]   When Captain Moore arrived, he could not believe his eyes. "Every time I came on deck to survey the horizon, I saw a soap bottle, bottle cap or a shard of plastic waste bobbing by. Here I was in the middle of the ocean and there was nowhere I could go to avoid the plastic."[2]

    The Pacific Ocean Garbage patch currently stretches hundreds of miles across the North Pacific Ocean. The existence of a garbage patch was actually predicted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association in 1988 after years of studying and analyzing the amount of trash that was being dumped in the ocean. The garbage patch is not a solid floating mass of trash, but rather consists of countless tiny pieces that come together in a vortex where many ocean currents converge.[3]

    Where does all the trash come from? Marine biologists estimate that over 80% of the garbage comes from us on land. Garbage can be washed from land to the sea via the sewers systems, streams or rivers. It may also wash away from the coast or off the beach. No matter how it reaches the garbage patch, trash from land may take six or seven years to complete its journey. Of course, garbage dumped from ships or nets lost at sea has a much shorter trip to reach the spinning patch of garbage.[4]

    It is estimated that approximately 90% of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is actually plastic. In 2006, the United Nations Environment Program estimated that every square mile of ocean hosts 46,000 pieces of floating plastic. Sadly, in some locations, the amount of plastic outweighs the amount of plankton by a ratio of six to one. [5] Of the staggering amounts of plastic that make it to the ocean, approximately 70% sinks causing damage to life on the ocean floor. The rest floats with much of it making its way to the gyres. 4

    So, what is the problem with plastic? Plastic is so cheap and convenient, right? We drink out of plastic, eat off of plastic, store things in plastic, we even sit on plastic. Plastic is everywhere! So, what is the problem with plastic – plastic is forever! Plastic does not biodegrade, it photo-degrades. What does that mean? Basically, plastic breaks down in sunlight into smaller and smaller pieces. Eventually, it breaks down into a single molecule of plastic but it is still too tough to be digested by anything. So, any piece of plastic that makes it into the Pacific Rim, will likely end up spinning around in the Pacific Garbage patch.[6]

    This floating trash poses numerous risks to marine life (this topic is discussed in more detail under the “Impact on Marine Life” tab). Sea creatures can become entangled in nets and debris. These poor animals are left to drown once entangled in these abandoned nets. Many animals also accidently ingest plastic and other trash, confusing it for food. Sea turtles consume plastic bags mistaking them for jellyfish. Albatross are particularly prone to eating small globs of plastic floating in the water. The Albatross search for fish eggs to feed their chicks, which float below the water’s surface. Unfortunately, floating plastic looks just like the eggs and often becomes accidently ingested. The adult albatross return and feed the indigestible plastic and trash to their young. These poor chicks eventually die due to starvation or internal injuries. It is common to find dead and decaying albatross young with stomachs full of plastic like this one below.

                                    [7]

                There is also a less obvious impact on humans. There are economic issues and health issues related to trash floating in the ocean. Abandoned nets get caught in the propellers of water craft causing economic losses. In addition, the fish we eat are ingesting this toxic trash. Evidence is mounting about the health effects of this pattern as well. Both of these topics are discussed more in depth under the “Impact on Humans” tab.

            What can we do? Can marine biologists clean-up this mess? Unfortunately, the answer is probably not.  The tiny pieces of plastic in the garbage patches can’t simply be scooped up in nets due to the impact this would have on marine life.  Smaller forms of marine life such as plankton or jelly fish often die immediately once they are removed from the ocean. Because of this, it isn’t possible to simply catch the plastic and release the marine life. [8] What it comes down to is managing waste on land. Please see the “call to action” tab for more information on what needs to be done.

                Each year, marine debris kills more than one million birds and 100,000 marine mammals and causes hundreds of boating accidents[9]. We hope you will take the time to scroll through the pages of our website. We hope to help educate people on the problem, its causes, impacts and what needs to be done to make our oceans healthy once again.

 

 

               



[1]Plastic Ocean: The Great Pacific Garbage Patch. CDNN. Retrieved on October 24, 2010 from http://www.cdnn.info/news/article/a071104.html 

[2] Algalita Marine Research Foundation (February 2010) Biography of Captain Charles Moore. Available at: http://www.algalita.org/about-us/bios/charles.html. Accessed on: November 10, 2010.

[3] Moore, C.J., Moore, S.L., Weisberg, S.B., Lattin, G.L., Zellers, A.F. Algalita Marine Research Foundation and Southern California Coastal Water Research Project. (2002) A Comparison of Neustonic Plastic and Zooplankton Abundance in Southern California’s Coastal Waters. Marine Pollution Bulletin  44: 1035–1038. 

[4] McLendon, R. What is the Great Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch? Mother Nature Network. Retrieved on October 25, 2010 from http://www.mnn.eart-matters/translating-uncle-sam/stories/what-is-the-great-pacific-ocean-garbage-patch 

[5] Plastic Debris in the World’s Oceans. Greenpeace. Retrieved on November 22, 2010 from http://oceans.greenpeace.org/raw/content/en/documents-reports/plastic_ocean_report.pdf 

[6] Out in the Pacific Plastic is Drastic. United Nations Environment Program. Retrieved on November 22, 2010 from http://marine-litter.gpa.unep.org/documents/World's_largest_landfill.pdf 

[8] Wheeler, D. (2009). Voyage to the Center of the Trash. Retrieved October 11, 2010 from http://www.trashvoyage.com/solutions.php

[9] Trashing the Ocean. Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. Retrieved on December 2, 2010 from http://www.mnh.si.edu/exhibits/ocean_hall/marine_debris.html

[10] Image retrieved on November 29, 2010 from http://earthfirst.com/marine-scientists-studying-great-pacific-garbage-patch/

[11] Image retrieved on December 2, 2010 from http://sfcitizen.com  

[12] Image retrieved on December 2, 2010 from http://www.theethicallychallenged.com/2010_08_01_archive.html

[13] Image retrieved on December 2, 2010 from http://www.news.com.au/world/floating-garbage-killing-marine-life/story-e6frfkyi-1225767096975