The Great Pacific Garbage Patch

4 Jan 2018

 The Great Pacific Garbage Patch's continued growth is killing wildlife and contaminating the seafood chain.

Image Credit: Reuters 


Why is it happening ?

Pacific Ocean- The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is so large that it spans across the entire Pacific Ocean, from the waters off the coast of the Western United States, past the islands of Hawaii, to the shores of Japan. The formation of this patch can be traced down to two factors: nature and humans. The human-induced impact derives from the large amounts of waste that inevitably finds its way into the oceans. It is estimated that some areas of the Garbage Patch are composed of up to 46,000 pieces of plastic per square mile. The natural factor is a lot more innocent: the movement of oceanic currents leads to garbage collecting in a relatively stationary part of the ocean, in oceanic gyres. Mass pollution at a global scale directly impacts the entire world and wildlife, yet despite its global scale, human complacency persists.


The Garbage Patch continues with no visible reduction. This is because society, in general, does not comprehend the Garbage Patch’s immensity, coupled with the lack of efforts made to reduce waste production. The current understanding of this patch as a floating island rather than simply areas with varying densities of garbage is a misinterpretation of the term. Therefore, lack of evidence of aerial images showing an actual ‘island’ leads to the public viewing this issue as inconsequential and therefore, unimportant.



Why does it matter?

Trash is a pollutant, especially in the ocean where marine life thrives. The problem lays in the vast amount of plastic. It isn’t biodegradable and remains in the environment, at times for extended periods, without breaking down. Instead, they accumulate unless they are artificially removed from the environment. After very long periods of time, these plastics photodegrade due to continuous exposure to sunlight. Consequently, as plastic undergoes photodegradation it becomes ingestible by marine life. This bioaccumulation in the food chain and contamination of species eventually affects all levels of the food chain, including humans. Moreover, photodegradation of these plastics can occur at the molecular levels, making it nearly impossible to assess the damage to the natural oceanic environment, along with the impact that it has on the food chain.


The entire garbage patch contains more than 5.25 trillion pieces which cover 700,000 square kilometers. It is estimated that more than 67 ships would be necessary to clean just 1% of the North Pacific Ocean. The longer the plastics stay in the ocean, the more degradation takes place and the harder it becomes to remove them. If idle oceanic plastic remains uncollected, then preventing plastics from contaminating the food cycle or becoming a part of the ecosystem will become a near impossible task. In turn, the bioaccumulation of toxicities, generated by sea wildlife consumption of uncollected and photodegrade plastic, will affect our health via our consumption of contaminated seafood; which will also lead to the endangerment of sea species such as the Laysan albatrosses and sea turtles, among others.


What can you do about it?

At a holistic level, Nations refuse to claim this garbage patch as their own. This has prevented sufficient research and loose preventive measures which don’t do much to reduce, remove, and solve the Garbage Patch. It is impossible to undo the damage done, however, countries can regulate plastic production industries in order to reduce plastic consumption. This can be followed up with UN Environmental Programme (UNEP) sponsored resolutions that commit countries to reduce waste and invest in more eco-friendly plastic consumption and waste management. Other organizations like UNESCO and the WWF should promote, incentivize and partake in this worldwide clean-up alongside the state government efforts.


On an individual level, the term, Garbage Patch, often leads to misconceptions that there is a literal floating patch of garbage in the Pacific Ocean. In order to move past this misunderstanding, efforts must encompass more than trying to unlearn what society thinks it knows about the patch. Instead, a robust multifacet effort should be initiated. It starts with educating society. This can be done by engaging with National Geographic or the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). They write extensively on the Garbage Patch and minor reading can further one’s understanding of how the patch exists. One can also take action pledging to the 4Rs or by donating to Plastic Pollution Coalition, a leading organization working towards reducing the size of the patch by going on expeditions and research journeys. Another action avenue is the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, who conduct research on the Garbage Patch. More directly, millennials are encouraged to consume less plastic. There are hundreds of ways this can be done. This is a good list to get started. By finding reusable containers and alternatives to plastic, millennials can have a noticeable impact on their immediate surroundings and reduce the growth of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Another way to act is by helping to dismount the misconception of a “floating island” of trash into a nuanced understanding of the Garbage Patch’s immensity.

Arunima Sircar briefs from Singapore.  She is a candidate for a BS in Geography from University of Oxford. 

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