Last month, Project Kaisei set out to explore the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and its surrounding ecosystem only to return early with news that it was worse than originally estimated. There are a number of descriptions of the Patch, which is the correct one?
What is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch?
A. A massive floating island of plastic bottles, bags, and other trash.
B. A huge area of accumulated marine debris, mostly small plastic particles, floating at or just below the water surface.
C. An international dumping ground for boats and cruise ships.
D. None of the above.
The answer is B.
There are many myths floating around about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP) and it’s often described incorrectly. Many people mistakenly assume that it’s a massive floating island of plastic bottles, bags and other trash. And many people don’t understand how their actions on land can affect something that’s far out in the ocean, and think boats and cruise ships are to blame.
We're going to set the record straight.
The Patch is actually a vortex made up of fragments of trash – mostly degraded plastic – swirling just below the surface of the ocean in the North Pacific gyre, a circular whirlpool created by natural ocean currents. More than 3.5 million tons of debris, about 80% of which are from land sources, is suspended in this current.
Instead of biodegrading, plastics photodegrade, meaning they break down into smaller and smaller fragments roughly the size of confetti. Although some large pieces of trash are visible, the majority only exist as tiny plastic fragments that are almost invisible to the naked eye. These floating fragments can absorb organic pollutants in the water.
So why should we care? These particles are a threat to our oceans and marine life, and inevitably, to our own health.. Fish and other marine animals often eat these particles. This means fish contaminated with the harmful particles could eventually wind up on your dinner plate.
Although it seems like an easy fix, the small size of the particles makes them nearly impossible to clean up. Removing the particles at this point could prove harmful to the plankton and other marine life that have grown accustomed to their new surroundings over the past few decades. In some areas of the ocean, plastic trash outnumbers the abundance of plankton by a ratio of six to one.
Most experts agree that the only way to combat this problem effectively is to control and reduce the production of waste on land. They recommend finding alternatives to plastics, particularly ones that are biodegradable or at least reusable.
What you can do:
Try to promote recycling initiatives in your area and reduce your own use of plastics. Use reusable bottles, containers, grocery bags and silverware as opposed to the disposable options. Also, be sure to properly tie and protect your trash so debris won’t fall out and eventually wash downstream into the ocean.
And, of course, if you’re out on a boat or near the shore, make sure not to dump anything into the water including fishing line, liquid wastes, or garbage.