The Great Pacific Garbage Patch: What Is It and What Can You Do?

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch: What Is It and What Can You Do?
What is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch?
Sea of Trash

Sea of Trash

Tons of plastic and other debris end up in our oceans every year. In fact, of the 200 billion pounds of plastic produced every year, about 10% eventually makes its way to the ocean. It may start out as litter on the beach or as rubbish tossed from the side of a ship, but no matter where it comes from, this trash will eventually get picked up and carried by ocean currents. These currents, known as gyres, work like a vortex to concentrate all that floating garbage in a central location. In the north Pacific Ocean, this oceanic dumping ground is known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and it’s situated about halfway between Japan and the west coast of North America. Estimates of its size range from the area of Hawaii to the span the of continental U.S., but because the debris patch can drift by thousands of miles depending on currents and weather, it’s exact scope has been difficult to determine. Similar patches have been found in other parts of the Pacific and in the Northern Atlantic as well.

So what’s floating out there?

While most of us probably think of a giant floating landfill when we hear about ocean litter, in fact most of the debris in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch isn’t actually visible to the naked eye. Instead, the majority of the waste is made up of tiny particles of plastic suspended at or below the surface of the water. Unlike biological waste, which decomposes into elements like hydrogen, oxygen, and carbon that can be reused in the environment, plastic never breaks down. Instead, when a plastic bag or bottle ends up in the ocean, it will be physically broken into smaller and smaller pieces, but those pieces never stop being plastic. Sampling has shown the concentration of these bits of plastic to be extremely high in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, but because the pieces can’t easily be seen it is difficult to judge just how widespread the pollution is. All sorts of other waste also gets caught up in ocean currents and deposited in the Pacific Garbage Patch, but because plastic floats and is so abundant it makes up the vast majority of ocean debris.

Plastic Turtle

Plastic Turtle

All this trash poses a number of serious environmental hazards. Large debris like nets and bags can drown or strangle animals like birds and turtles, while small underwater particles damage or kill the birds, fish, and filter feeders that mistake them for food. Tiny plastic particles are also known to absorb pollutants from the water, which means that when they’re eaten these chemicals either poison the animal or are carried further up the food chain. Finally, many of the toxic chemicals used to produce plastics, like phthalates, BPA, and dioxins, can leach from floating plastic trash into the water.

What can you do?

These little plastic particles are nearly impossible to clean up, which is why avoiding plastic in the first place is always one of the best things you can do to help the environment. When possible, opt for more eco-friendly materials like glass, metal, or ceramic instead. For example, you can replace plastic storage containers with glass, plastic shopping bags with cloth ones, and disposable razors, pens, and bottles with reusable options. And to help keep the plastic you do use out of the oceans (and out of landfills), make you always recycle and support eco-friendly companies by buying recycled products.

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