The Great Pacific Garbage Patch – real or not real?

Throughout my research into marine plastic pollution for a university project I came across a phenomenon called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. You may of heard of it. To me it strikes up a very powerful image that, primarily, is very misunderstood.

The ‘patch’ was discovered by Charles Moore, in 1997 who was surrounded by plastic as he sailed across the Pacific ocean.

“As I gazed from the deck at the surface of what ought to have been a pristine ocean, I was confronted, as far as the eye could see, with the sight of plastic.” – Charles Moore, discoverer of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

cc11e3f68Figure 1: The five major oceanic gyres (Photo credit: http://worldminded.com/the-5-gyres-institute/)

It was estimated by oceanographer, Curtis Ebbesmeyer, that this ‘patch’ of floating debris was the size of Texas and accumulated in a circulating ocean current called a gyre. These giant gyres are created by wind and the earth’s spin (Coriolis effect) causing convergence of floating debris into the centre, where it becomes trapped. The Pacific garbage patch has received the most attention in the past years but isn’t the only one; there are four other major gyres in the world and plastic accumulates in all of them (see figure 1).

The term ‘patch’ has led many to believe that it’s an area of continuous rubbish visible from space. However, in reality there are just millions of tiny tiny pieces of micro plastic, no more than a few mm in size, floating and mixing in the water column. These tiny plastics either come from cosmetic face washes containing microbeads or from larger bits of plastic that have been broken down by the sun and wave action. This has transformed our oceans into what some people call a Plastic Soup.

Micro plastics can make their way up the food chain to the fish we eat which can have drastic implications for our health. Research in this area is controversial but papers have said there may be a link to cancer. Whether there is or isn’t a causal effect linking plastic to cancer, I know I’d rather not be eating any.

Large bits of plastic can be ingested by sea birds and turtles that think plastic bags are jellyfish, which then block their intestines. Dianna Parker, communications specialist with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration‘s Marine Debris Program, said ‘we know that just about every dead albatross found on Midway Atoll has some form of plastic in its stomach’. Fishing nets and plastic beer can holders can also entangle and trap marine animals causing them to suffocate.

These are just some of the effects that plastics can cause in our oceans. To me, it is clear that plastics do not belong in our oceans and this issue must be addressed.

Solutions 

Because plastic is contained within these gyres, which lie in international waters, no country wants to take responsibility for clearing it up. It’s a big task and no one is willing to take it on, due to the large area, variable distribution, and cost. The collection of micro plastics is very challenging due to their size and collecting them could also damage tiny plankton living in the sea that are vital to starting off the food chain.

One solution designed by Boyan Slat, a Dutch aeronautical engineering student, is a system of funnelling marine waste into ‘artificial coastlines’. The debris accumulates at floating V-shaped barriers and is then collected and recycled. His report on its feasibility estimates that 65 cubic metres of plastic would accumulate each day and this would have to be collected by a ship every 45 days. The disadvantage with this method is that it doesn’t collect debris smaller than 1mm. However Slat states in his report that because micro plastics come from the breaking down of larger plastics, the number of micro plastics should decrease as larger plastics will be collected. Prototypes have recently been deployed and tested in extreme weather conditions and an operational pilot clean up system is set to take place later this year.

It’s been estimated that 80% of marine debris is from land-based sources, therefore one of the best solutions is to stop this input by reducing the amount of plastic produced by us and increase the production of biodegradable products. The banning of micro beads in the UK by October 2017 is an excellent step in the right direction.

“It’s not a hopeless situation. Marine debris is absolutely a solvable problem because it comes from us humans and our everyday practices. We can take any number of steps to keep it from entering the ocean and that can happen at the highest level with governments and it can happen at the lowest level individuals and everyday choices.”– Dianna Parker.

Organisations such as the Plastic Pollution Coalition, 5 Gyres, Surfers Against Sewage and the Plastic Oceans Foundation are using social media and campaigns to support manufacturers, and businesses to reduce toxic, disposable plastics and increase biodegradable or reusable materials.

Take a look at my list of things YOU can do to help combat plastic pollution in our ocean.

More information:

Sources:

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