The Birth of Ocean Garbage Patches

Updated: Aug 23, 2020

One of the biggest problems when combating plastic pollution is the immense amount of single-use products that are thrown out on a daily basis. Most people don’t care about where their cup goes once they finish their morning coffee on the go. Out of sight, out of mind, right? Many companies and individuals dump plastic debris and other waste into the oceans, knowing that it’ll never be seen again.

But where does it go?

It doesn’t simply disappear as we perceive it to. Our excessive plastic usage and poor disposal habits have led to the creation of the Great Pacific garbage patch, also nicknamed the Pacific trash vortex. Located in the northern Pacific Ocean, the 6,000 mile-long area between Asia and North America contains over one trillion plastic pieces. Most of its feeding stems from six countries—China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia, and Sri Lanka. No, the plastic pieces there aren’t whole Pepsi bottles or takeout containers like you’d imagine. During the journey from countries in South America, North America, and Asia, photodegradation (decomposition from the sun) and the constant pounding of waves weakens plastic debris, until it eventually breaks down from recognizable single-use items to small, microplastic chunks. Once they arrive at their final destination, these small pieces cloud the water’s surface or sink to the sea floor. The massive amount of microplastics coating the sea represents a mere 30% of the total waste that sits in the Great Pacific garbage patch. Chemicals such as bisphenol A (BPA) then begin to slowly leach out, creating a toxic soup of sea water, plastic beads, and maybe some fishing net strung out over the bottom of the ocean.

What is a Gyre?

You may be wondering why the debris doesn’t continue moving along as it did for the weeks or months it took to arrive at its final destination. The answer is—gyres. A gyre is a swirling ocean current that is known to trap pollutants in its cycle. The middle of the current is similar to an eye of a storm—calm water with little movement provides the perfect environment for light plastic beads to settle. The true definition of a gyre solely involves the movement of water, but the global plastic crisis has redefined its meaning.

There are five main gyres around the world, with each serving as our world’s plastic trash bins. The most concerning gyre is now the North Pacific, being that it contains the Great Pacific Garbage Patch mentioned above, stretching across 1.6 million square kilometers, about two times the size of the state of Texas, and containing nearly 90,000 metric tons of plastic debris. The North Pacific Gyre’s poor condition was first noted by Charles J. Moore in 1997 while he was returning to his home in California after a yacht race in Hawaii. A similar situation is blossoming in the Atlantic Ocean, deemed the North Atlantic garbage patch, with many of the statistics unknown due to a lack of research.

The Next Steps

The cleanup process is not nearly as simple as it sounds. Many proposed methods—including the usage of nets—are not only expensive, but time consuming and ineffective. Moore stated that any country that claimed responsibility would become bankrupt in an attempt to eliminate the patch. Even if it was pursued, a fleet of over 50 ships would be unable to clean up 1% of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in one year. Nets would also collect thousands of marine species big and small during the process, harming more animals than the removal is saving.

The best way to prevent ever-growing garbage patches from popping up in all five gyres is to stop fueling them. Non-biodegradable products are the sole reason for their appearances, meaning that an end to petroleum-based products is needed. If proper disposal methods are pursued, our world will rely much heavier on the usage of landfills. Not only do they take up large plots of land, but they destroy the areas they occupy through deforestation, habitat loss, and toxic chemical exposure. This is yet another example of why sustainable plastic alternatives are the best option for lessening the effects of the plastic pollution problem. To read more about our mission and the issue we are helping combat, check out these blog posts!

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