10 Horrifying Facts About the Great Pacific Garbage Patch
In the United States, as well as in much of the developed world, we rely on plastic for virtually everything. Think about the course of your day, for instance. When you wake up in the morning, the first thing you do is probably hit the ‘snooze’ button on your plastic alarm clock. Then, you walk into the bathroom to take a shower and brush your teeth using items that are stored in plastic. Next, you venture into the kitchen to prepare breakfast with pots, pans, and utensils that are comprised of, you guessed it, plastic. As you go about your day, chances are you use more plastic than any other kind of material. According to GarbagePatch.net, there are about seven billion pounds of non-recyclable plastic that is produced every year around the world. In just the United States, only 7% of all of the plastic that is consumed annually is actually recycled. So, where does the rest of the plastic waste end up? It ends up in places like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a unique vortex of plastic debris that floats in the ocean between the Western Coast of the United States and Hawaii. While much of the rubble lurks beneath the surface of the sea, the vortex is large, complex, and continues to devastate our marine environment. Here are ten horrifying and interesting facts about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
10The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is Massive
Perhaps one of the most horrific things about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is that it is enormous in size. When you think of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, you probably think about looking onto an ocean that is covered, as far as you can see, in plastic. The reality is quite the contrary. When you look onto the ocean where the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is located, you will only see the ocean. You won’t see any plastic bottles, bags, or debris floating on the surface. This doesn’t mean that there isn’t plenty of garbage in the gyre, however. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is wide as it is deep. Scientists claim that there is approximately seven million tons of debris in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and that it is roughly nine feet deep. If this is hard to comprehend, picture the state of Texas. Texas is immense in size compared to many other states. This particular Garbage Patch is roughly two times the size of the state of Texas! That is massive! More than 80% of the debris that makes up this famous garbage patch originates from the land, while 20% comes from oil platforms, boats, and work ships. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a great big pool of debris that has undoubtedly caused some serious issues with its immense size and ongoing growth.
9The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is Not the Only One
Believe it or not, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is not the only marine debris field in existence. In fact, there are five of them on planet earth. The five patches are called gyres, which are large systems of moving ocean currents. These currents move in a circular motion and are propelled by wind patterns around the world and the forces created by the Earth’s rotation. These gyres help to circulate ocean water around the entire world. This process is referred to as the ‘ocean’s conveyor belt’. While there are a few different types of gyres, most of them tend to be somewhat predictable with regards to their movement. The five largest ocean gyres include the Indian Ocean gyre, the North Atlantic Gyre, the North Pacific Gyre, The South Atlantic Gyre, and the South Pacific Gyre. Each ocean gyre circles a large area of relatively stationary water. Drifting debris can accumulate in these areas over the course of many years with little to no movement outside of the gyre. These areas are referred to as the ‘garbage patches’. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is located within the North Pacific Gyre and although it is one of the largest, it is not the only one on the planet, which means there is a lot of floating garbage and plastic debris in our world!
8No one Knows How Much Garbage is in the Patch
One of the scariest things about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is that no one really knows how much garbage is located in the gyre. Scientists that research the area can certainly speculate and have come up with a few guesses, but nothing is concrete. According to most sources, the center of the garbage patch is thought to be approximately 386,000 square miles around and spans more than one million square miles in length. There is thought to be more than seven million tons of weight in the North Pacific gyre! This projection does not include all of the garbage that is caught up in some of the other gyres around the world. Sources state that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch has approximately six times more plastic than it does plankton, which serves as the primary food source for many different types of fish and marine life. Not only is this a problem for sea creatures, but for organizations that have embarked on a tireless journey to clean up our oceans. Organizations who have tried to develop a game plan for cleaning the Great Pacific Garbage Patch have their hands full, quite literally, of garbage. In total, the United Nations Environment Program claims that there are approximately 46,000 pieces of plastic for every square mile of ocean throughout the world. This does not include excess debris and non-plastic garbage that accumulates in the ocean. Who would have thought that the world’s biggest landfill was in the ocean?
7More than 70% of the Debris Lies on the Ocean Floor
Since the discovery of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, it is thought that our plastic footprint might actually be more damaging than our carbon footprint. In the past, everyday items were made from anything that people could get their hands on. Ivory, wood, bone, and metal were all popular materials used to create household and personal care items. Plastic was invented in 1907 by a Belgian gentleman who happened to be living in New York State at the time. He developed plastic as a way to cope with endangered materials, such as ivory, and to present the world with a more cost effective and viable production option. He probably never thought that his invention would cause so much chaos in our oceans a little over 100 years later! Our society has morphed into a throwaway culture, where we discard items that are no longer of use to us. Unfortunately, most of these items end up in the ocean via illegal dumping or through run-off in storm drains and waterways. While about 20% of all plastic in the ocean comes from boats, approximately 80% comes from our very own backyards! While much of the plastic that is located in these gyres are smaller and can hardly be seen by the naked eye, there are a number of larger items that end up on the ocean floor. Since plastic does not break down like wood or bone, for instance, it can spend years wreaking havoc on the ocean floor. It affects the entire food chain, from the larger bottom-feeders to seals, seagulls, and crabs. The worst thing, perhaps, is that no one knows just how much plastic is located on the ocean floor or just how much it has affected our marine environment because few studies have been done to this date.
6The Garbage Patch is Too Big and Too Costly to Clean Up
If the Great Pacific Garbage Patch causes so many problems for us and the world around us, why don’t we just clean it up? In theory, it would be great if we could take a large fish net, catch all of the debris, and recycle or dispose of it properly. The reality of the situation, however, is that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is too large, too complex, and too costly to fix. Is it possible? Yes, with any stretch of the imagination. Is any country in the developing world going to want to assume responsibility for such an insurmountable task? The reality of that happening is unlikely. You have to take into account how large the Great Pacific Garbage Patch actually is. Not only would it take a lot of manpower and oil to actually get that far out into the ocean, but it would also take a ton of equipment to adequately clean up the mess. Even if you were able to remove the larger, floating items, you would have a hard time figuring out how to remove all of the smaller, plastic particles that are floating on the ocean’s surface. Photo-degradation is a real thing that would be tremendously difficult to deal with should a massive clean-up take place. While there are things we can do as consumers to cut plastic consumption and waste, assuming that one country will take the lead in a large-scale cleanup is unlikely.
5It Has Grown Tremendously in a Short Period of Time
Another major thing to consider is how quickly the Great Pacific Garbage Patch has grown over the last few decades. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch was first stumbled upon in 1997, by a Sea Captain named Charles Moore. Charles was sailing from Hawaii to the mainland and decided to take a shortcut. On this shortcut, he ran into the North Pacific Gyre where noticed that there were several, small pieces of plastic and other debris floating in this one particular area. While he didn’t think too deeply about it, he thought that there must be much more to the story since everywhere he looked he saw some sort of plastic! After conducting much research over the years, Moore now calculates that there is more than 100 million tons of debris in the ocean. Analysts have stated that the volume of debris has doubled or tripled over the years and have led to a lot more marine dysfunction than ever before. A study conducted by Moore in found that there was 0.002g/m2 of plastic debris at the surface of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in 1999. The same study was conducted a second time, nine years later, and showed a doubling in plastic debris at the surface. In just nine years, the amount of plastic present on the surface of the water doubled. As if that isn’t scary enough, that number continues to grow.
4It Presents a Significant Danger to Marine Mammals
Another horrifying fact about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is that it continues to have a devastating effect on marine life. Seals and turtles, for instance, get tangled up in the debris. In many cases, they are unable to get out, which leads to suffocation or strangulation and, ultimately, death. Plastic rings from six-pack cans of soda, plastic rope, and nets are all common traps for marine life. What’s worse, perhaps, is that marine animals are consuming mass amounts of plastic. This is damaging because it tricks their digestive systems into thinking that they are full. Their stomachs are not able to differentiate the plastic from their regular food. As a result, the animals are not getting the nourishment they need to thrive, which can lead to sickness and, ultimately, death. If they stop eating altogether as a result of ingesting too much plastic, they can starve to death! In worse cases, larger pieces of plastic are causing blockages in their systems, making it hard to swallow, breath, digest, or extricate waste. This can also lead to death. Astonishingly, it is estimated that more than one million marine birds and more than 100 thousand marine mammals die as a result of getting tangled up in or ingesting plastic in the ocean. Can you imagine the number of animals that will die should this trend continue? Can you imagine a world where many of the most common marine mammals become endangered or extinct as a result of our plastic throwaway culture?
3It Threatens Food Chains
Plastic waste is scary because it can have devastating effects on marine life. What is scarier, perhaps, is that it can also have devastating implications for the health and vitality of humans. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, as well as the four other gyres throughout the world, has tainted our food chain. Fish and other marine mammals are ingesting a ton of plastic, most of which contains high levels of very harmful chemicals. This undoubtedly wreaks havoc on the health of the fish, but on humans, as well. Once these fish have consumed high levels of toxic chemicals, these chemicals are then passed on through the food chain. When we purchase fish from the grocery store, or catch it ourselves, there is a good chance that the fish we are consuming is not 100% free and clear of toxic chemicals that can cause significant problems for our health and sustained wellbeing. In some of the most polluted areas of the ocean, it is thought that there is six times more plastic than there is plankton. Plankton are small, microscopic organisms that float on the surface of the ocean. Plankton is a significant source of nutrients for many different kinds of fish and marine life and is the primary source of food for many. If fish are feeding on plastic, rather than plankton, as it is more readily available, the food chain will undoubtedly be thrown out of whack. If this trend continues, it can have devastating consequences on what we eat, how we eat, and how we take manage our health.
2Plastics Leach and Absorb Harmful Pollutants
Plastics also leach and absorb harmful pollutants. Marine mammals are not only getting tangled up in plastic, but they are consuming it, as well. Aside from the other issues that have been discussed, ingesting a lot of plastic could have devastating and toxic effects on the mammal’s digestive system, as well as on the food chain as a whole. Ingesting plastic is also dangerous because it contains a lot of chemicals. Recent studies show that plastics soak up and retain a broad range of potentially toxic chemicals. The chemicals, such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and organochlorine pesticides such as DDD, not only endanger the sea creatures that consume them, but the humans who then consume those sea creatures, as well. In fact, more than 50% of all of the plastic debris that was studied contained some form of PAH. Can you imagine all of the potentially hazardous chemicals we are consuming in our food chain as a result of this plastic nightmare? The Great Pacific Garbage Patch not only interrupts the flow of the food chain, but can devastating effects on marine life of all shapes and sizes.
1It Just Keeps Getting Bigger
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch has grown immensely over the past few decades. What is most startling, perhaps, is that it just keeps getting bigger. According to one source, plastic gained widespread use after the Second World War. Since then, it has taken more than a half of a century for plastic pollution to reach the levels that we see today. While levels are certainly concerning today, plastic pollution is expected to double in the next decade or so. In fact, some reports state that if we continue with the current trend, our oceans will contain more plastic than fish by the year 2050! This is absolutely shocking and scary if you think about how that will alter the way we eat and the way we live. It is sad to say that at this point, there is no way to reverse the problem. The easiest thing we can do, as consumers, is to be more mindful of what we purchase and how we dispose of unused or unwanted items to prevent further pandemonium. One thing that we can do is to make a conscious effort to use less plastic. When we do use plastic, we must make sure that we are recycling it properly. As a society, we need to start developing biodegradable alternatives to traditional petroleum-based plastics. Depending on the plastic, it takes more than 450 years for a plastic bottle, for instance, to biodegrade. Even then, it never fully degrades, but rather, breaks down into tiny pieces that stay afloat the ocean’s surface. If we can turn to better biodegradable options, we may be able to put a stop to further plastic pollution and the detriment it causes to our bodies and our environment.
Despite popular belief, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is not a huge, floating debris field of plastic. While it is certainly humungous and does contain a lot of plastic, you wouldn’t be able to tell from just looking out onto the ocean. Just because you can’t see it at first glance, however, doesn’t mean it is not there and that it is not wreaking havoc on the marine environment and the world around us. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is said to be more than two times the size of Texas, with its depth as relevant as its surface span. It is chock full of plastic particles and larger objects that cause significant problems for different species of fish and other marine mammals. While the facts are certainly horrifying, the future is dire, unless, of course, we begin to change our course of action. As a global community, we must adopt better practices when it comes to properly recycling unused or unwanted plastic items. We must put our minds together to brainstorm better, more sustainable alternatives that won’t cause so many problems for the world around us. Together, we can prevent these horrifying facts from becoming monumental and dire realities that will change the world we know and love.