Our trash never goes away. What we produce, purchase and consume, never really goes away. Unless we truly understand the consequences of our actions, we won’t understand the trap we’ve set up for ourselves. Our relationship with plastic bags only started in 1950 and now it’s increased 620% since 1975.
There are five main ocean gyres on our earth. These gyres follow a circular path which converge ocean pollution. This isn’t a solid convergence being that plastics go through photodegradation and bits and pieces are strewn about around the patches. But there is an estimated size for each garbage ocean patch.
- The Indian Ocean Garbage Patch and was discovered in 2010, is a gyre of marine litter suspended in the upper water column of the central Indian Ocean, specifically the Indian Ocean Gyre, one of the five major oceanic gyres.The patch does not appear as a continuous debris field. As with other patches in each of the five oceanic gyres, the plastics in it break down to even smaller particles, and to constituent polymers. As with the other patches, the field constitutes an elevated level of pelagic plastics, chemical sludge, and other debris; primarily particles that are invisible to the naked eye.
- North Atlantic Gyre, which contains the North Atlantic Garbage Patch, equal to the North Pacific Garbage Patch is an area of man-made marine debris found floating within the North Atlantic Gyre, originally documented in 1972.The patch is estimated to be hundreds of kilometres across in size, with a density of over 200,000 pieces of debris per square kilometer. The debris zone shifts by as much as 1,600 km (990 mi) north and south seasonally, and drifts even farther south during the El Niño-Southern Oscillation.
- North Pacific Gyre, which contains The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, also described as the Pacific trash vortex, which was discovered between 1985 and 1988. It is located roughly between 135°W to 155°W and 35°N and 42°N. The patch extends over an indeterminate area of widely varying range depending on the degree of plastic concentration used to define the affected area.
- The Great Pacific garbage patch has one of the highest levels known of plastic particulate suspended in the upper water column. As a result, it is one of several oceanic regions where researchers have studied the effects and impact of plastic photodegradation in the neustonic layer of water. Unlike organic debris, which biodegrades, the photodegraded plastic disintegrates into ever smaller pieces while remaining a polymer. This process continues down to the molecular level. As the plastic flotsam photodegrades into smaller and smaller pieces, it concentrates in the upper water column. As it disintegrates, the plastic ultimately becomes small enough to be ingested by aquatic organisms that reside near the ocean’s surface. In this way, plastic may become concentrated in neuston, thereby entering the food chain.
- The patch is characterized by exceptionally high relative concentrations of pelagic plastics, chemical sludge and other debris that have been trapped by the currents of the North Pacific Gyre. Its low density (4 particles per cubic meter) prevents detection by satellite photography, or even by casual boaters or divers in the area. It consists primarily of a small increase in suspended, often microscopic, particles in the upper water column.
- South Atlantic Gyre, which is the subtropical gyre in the south Atlantic Ocean. In the southern portion of the gyre, northwesterly (or southeastward-flowing) winds drive eastward-flowing currents that are difficult to distinguish from the northern boundary of the Antarctic Circumpolar Current. Like other oceanic gyres, it collects vast amounts of floating debris.
- South Pacific Gyre, which is part of the Earth’s system of rotating ocean currents, bounded by the Equator to the north, Australia to the west, the Antarctic Circumpolar Current to the south, and South America to the east. The center of the South Pacific Gyre is the site on Earth farthest from any continents and productive ocean regions and is regarded as Earth’s largest oceanic desert.
Some of these long-lasting plastics end up in the stomachs of marine animals, and their young, including sea turtles and the black-footed albatross. Midway Atoll receives substantial amounts of marine debris from the patch. Of the 1.5 million Laysan albatrosses that inhabit Midway, nearly all are likely to have plastic in their digestive system. Approximately one-third of their chicks die, and many of those deaths are due to being fed plastic from their parents. Twenty tons of plastic debris washes up on Midway every year with five tons of that debris being fed to albatross chicks.
Besides the particles’ danger to wildlife, on the microscopic level the floating debris can absorb organic pollutants from seawater, including PCBs, DDT, and PAHs. Aside from toxic effects, when ingested, some of these are mistaken by the endocrine system as estradiol, causing hormone disruption in the affected animal. These toxin-containing plastic pieces are also eaten by jellyfish, which are then eaten by fish.
Many of these fish are then consumed by humans, resulting in their ingestion of toxic chemicals. While eating their normal sources of food, plastic ingestion can be unavoidable or the animal may mistake the plastic as a food source.
Marine plastics also facilitate the spread of invasive species that attach to floating plastic in one region and drift long distances to colonize other ecosystems. Research has shown that this plastic marine debris affects at least 267 species worldwide.
Charles J. Moore is an oceanographer and racing boat captain known for articles that recently brought attention to the ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch’. He founded the Algalita Marine Research and Education and in 2008, the foundation organized the JUNK Raft project, to “creatively raise awareness about plastic debris and pollution in the ocean”, and specifically the Great Pacific Garbage Patch trapped in the North Pacific Gyre, by sailing 2,600 miles across the Pacific Ocean on a 30-foot-long (9.1 m) raft made from an old Cessna 310 aircraft fuselage and six pontoons filled with 15,000 old plastic bottles.
The JUNK Raft Project was organized by Dr. Marcus Eriksen, Joel Paschal and Anna Cummins in Long Beach, California in 2008, to bring attention to the issue of plastic pollution in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The project was launched with the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, after founder Charles J. Moore encountered the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in 1997. Organizers hoped to “creatively raise awareness about plastic debris and pollution in the ocean,” specifically the Great Pacific Garbage Patch trapped in the North Pacific Gyre.
There are many more organizations set up doing research to solve the plastic pollution problem in our oceans, but the main solution starts at the top with the banning of plastics from large corporate companies. When you make a purchase, you are voting with your consumer goods. Corporations do listen, we just need to tell them what we will not tolerate and what we need from them.
Other products are being tested on the market such as biodegradable plastics and even plastics made from food, so that when they enter back into nature, the animals won’t suffer when accidentally consuming them. I hope that this post helps in the understanding of why being consciously aware and responsible for our trash is a crucial role for the future of our planet. It can feel overwhelming and although a small change in your daily routine may not feel like an impact among the current issues we have, it does help. Make small changes first, then move towards bigger changes. It all adds up.