The Great Pacific Garbage Patch

What It Is and What It Isn't

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By Guest Contributor Kara Kuntz, environmental educator and organic farm technician.

Contrary to popular belief, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is not an enormous island of solid trash floating in the Pacific, but rather a boundless, almost immeasurable soup of microscopic debris.

Most of this debris comes from North America or Asia, and travels to the patch on one of four water currents. These currents are caused by tides, wind, and the fluctuation of water density based on temperature or salt content.

These four currents converge at the North Pacific Gyre, also known as the North Pacific Subtropical High. A gyre is a system of rotating ocean currents caused by wind and the Earth's rotational forces.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is actually made up of two patches, the Western Garbage Patch, located near Japan, and the Eastern Garbage Patch, located between the west coast of the United States and Hawaii. Most of the debris of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is pulled into the gyres by one of the four currents, and remains trapped in its calm center.

Microplastics

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is comprised largely of microplastics, or microscopic pieces of plastic debris. This type of water pollution is made up of three main types of trash:

  • Plastics. Plastic makes up about 80% of the debris. Plastic is a cheap and abundant material, and due to its durability and versatility, is a popular choice when constructing consumer and industrial products. Plastic cannot usually be broken down by living organisms, which means that once it ends up in the ocean, it will stay there, being photo-degraded and pummeled into tiny pieces, but never disappearing. Some of the pieces are extremely small - these microbeads carry their own suite of problems.

  • Larger debris. Larger debris, which makes up about 20% of the debris, comes mostly from fishing operations, offshore oil rigs, or spillage from shipping vessels.

  • Sunken trash. The patch contains a considerable amount of sunken trash. Oceanographers recently estimated that up to 70% of marine trash exists not at the surface but at the bottom of the ocean.

    Impacts

    The impacts of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch are wide ranging and disastrous. Marine wildlife feels the effects of the debris most strongly. A few examples include:

    • Sea turtles, mistaking plastic bags for jellyfish or other marine prey.

    • Albatrosses and other sea birds, feeding bits of plastic to their young, leading them to die of starvation and dehydration.

    • Seal and other marine mammals, often getting caught in abandoned fishing nets.

    • Filter feeders, who consume plastic bits instead of their normal plankton or fish eggs.

    The floating plastic can also prevent sunlight from reaching photosynthetic plankton or algae, microscopic organisms that serve a crucial function as the base of the entire marine food web. If there is less plankton available, animals that eat plankton, like turtles or fish, will also decrease in numbers. If turtles and fish decrease, than apex predators like sharks, tuna, and whales will also see their population be reduced.

    The Great Pacific Garbage Patch also affects human life:

    • If marine food webs are compromised, fish and other seafood will become less available and more expensive.

    • Plastic contains chemicals such as BPA, or bisphenol A, which can leach out into the water and is suspected to cause environmental and health problems. PCB, or polychlorinated biphenyl, is known to accumulate in plastic, and can accumulate to toxic levels in marine life and in the humans that consume marine life.

      Potential Solutions

      Though scientists have studied the Great Pacific Garbage Patch extensively, they have discovered few workable solutions for cleaning up the patch. Because the patch is so large and exists so far from shore, no country has stepped up to tackle the enormous and costly task of removing the debris. The Pacific is too deep to trawl and nets small enough to capture debris would unintentionally capture marine life as well. Scientists agree that the best solution to clean up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is to reduce usage of non-biodegradable plastics and to encourage the use of biodegradable and reusable materials.