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Update on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (Yes, It’s Still There)

Update on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (Yes, It’s Still There)

One-third of all albatross chicks die on the Midway Atoll, often as the result of being mistakenly fed plastic by their parents.

The North Pacific Gyre is commonly known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. But a more accurate description might be a giant vortex of plastic soup, roughly twice the size of Texas.

Awareness of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is widespread, but it hasn’t translated into widespread action—yet.

Tackling the challenge is daunting, but the truth is that we CAN all do something to end plastic waste in our oceans. But first, here’s what we know so far (e.g., the scary part):

6.4 million metric tons of plastic circles the globe.
The U.N. estimates that 6.4 million metric tons of plastic debris pollutes the world’s oceans—and some scientists say this number is optimistic at best. Scientists don’t know the full extent of the proliferation of plastics in the ocean, but there are five major oceanic gyres, or circulating current systems, where ocean debris is most likely to end up. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch has been the most studied one.

50 percent of all plastic is “unaccounted for.”
How does plastic end up in the ocean, anyway? I’m certainly not throwing water bottles down storm drains.

But the fact is, as a society, we only reclaim about five percent of our plastics, according to 5 Gyres, which studies the impact of ocean plastic pollution. Of the remainder, 50 percent ends up in landfills, and the rest is “lost in the environment, where it washes out to sea.”

Blogger Tim Silverwood made a trip out to the Gyre earlier this year, where he observed that the plastic in the Garbage Patch is mostly found in shards (which “descends throughout the entire water column, making it physically impossible to ‘scoop up’ and remove,”). But he also found whole objects floating in the patch—everything from toothbrushes and pen caps to fishing debris and children’s toys. If you use plastic, most likely you’ve contributed to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

Plastics last a long time; as they slowly degrade, they introduce pollutants into the food chain and harm marine life.
Because plastic is designed to last, it never disappears. Rather, it breaks down into smaller pieces, becoming the “plastic sand” that is now infamous as it washes onto the shores of places like Hawaii, Australia, and Normandy.

Plastic continues to break down into invisible microplastics (smaller than the width of a human hair) that can be eaten by sea life as tiny as zooplankton. Not only does plastic release toxins as it breaks down, it also absorbs other toxic chemicals that are present in the ocean and are known to cause cancer or disrupt endocrine systems. Scientists are now concerned that the toxins are accumulating in the food chain and will eventually reach humans.

Seabirds are also being killed in great numbers by the plastic, which was recently documented in a powerful photographic series by Chris Jordan. Soda caps are the main culprits; albatrosses and other birds mistakenly feed chicks the bits of plastic, which results in their death. Nearly half—44 percent—of all seabird species have been documented with plastic in or around their bodies.

Cleaning up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is nearly impossible.
Due to the nature of the plastic waste (mostly translucent pieces the size of your fingernail) and the impracticality of hauling it all the way from the Gyre, scientists have determined that it would cost more resources than it would conserve to try and clean up the patch.

And the issue is getting worse. The Gyre will soon start picking up somewhere between 5 and to 20 million tons of marine debris from the tsunami that hit Japan. Regarding the source of microplastics: scientists are beginning to suspect that synthetic clothing may also be contributing to the problem.

This problem is alarming and difficult to confront. But organizations and businesses are mobilizing around the issue with innovation and dedication. For example, the cleaning company Method announced in September that it will manufacture bottles partially composed of plastic reclaimed from the Gyre.

If other companies follow suit, there may be increased opportunities for groups seeking to become part of a new supply chain for post-consumer ocean plastic. And organizations like Trash Patch and Associação Verdever, both past Changemakers competition entrants, use coastal cleanup as a way to support sustainable livelihoods and eliminate ocean debris.

As consumers of plastic, we can also contribute to cleaner oceans in our daily lives. Plastic is ubiquitous in modern society, but here’s what you can do:

  • Limit the use and waste of plastic. Support innovations like cloth grocery bags, reusable containers, and biodegradable materials.
  • Buy from companies that use post-consumer materials.
  • Reclaim the plastic that threatens to enter the ocean by supporting beach cleanup efforts.
  • Start a community awareness initiative or lobby for stronger recycling laws for businesses.

Want to find out more? The sea captain who first discovered the garbage patch in the ‘90s recently published a book about his journey to learn about the impact of garbage on marine ecosystems. Or check out the current work of initiatives like Junk Raft and the Trash Free Seas Alliance, a group of organizations that joined together at this year’s Clinton Global Initiatives Conference to work toward trash-free oceans.

Photo Credit: Chris Jordan
This post is by Kristie Wang and was originally posted on Changemakers’ Ideas ExChange blog.

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144 comments

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8:30AM PDT on Oct 3, 2013

This is heartbreaking!

8:27AM PDT on Oct 3, 2013

The UK idea of re-using bags is great in principle, but I have spoken to a few friends here (UK) and I'm afraid they ignore it and have new ones each time. Maybe supermarkets should be repeatedly showing films of the tragic outcome of plastic!

4:06AM PDT on Oct 3, 2013

Only education and action will help to heal this situation! And that is on an individual basis. We need to recognize this is serious, and get over our "convenience" attitude! Instill pride in handling our refuse responsibly.

3:23PM PDT on Oct 2, 2013

There's more than one garbage patch -- rubbish acculmulates in each of the ocean gyres (5 major ones, I think).

7:07AM PDT on Apr 6, 2012

With the current ability of our fishing fleets trawling type nets we could in a few year clean up this mess if we wanted to do so. Yea, it would cost billions and so far no one wants to foot the bill. There are so many types of net devices that could strip at least the majority of the garbage and move it to a dump on land. Take a look at the amount of fish we pull out of the oceans every year, over 100 million metric tons. We could easily remove most of the mess if needed. If we took several of the worlds NAVYs and outfitted some of their ships we could pull out at the larger pieces of junk from our oceans. Heck hire some of the fishing fleets that are doing nothing. We may not be able to get the microscopic bits, but we could get rid of this mess in short order if we wanted to do so. Everyone is fighting over who's fault it is, well who cares, it is going to effect everyone shortly. If the food chain continues to become polluted it will eventually effect every living organism on earth. The microscopic organisms of our oceans feed all the way up the food chain and can effect everything on the planet. We need to do something about this mess now. Even if it cost billions. We could put a new aircraft carrier on the back burner for a few years or maybe a few fighters or bombers, what ever it takes. I would rather have clean oceans.

11:52AM PDT on Apr 1, 2012

In the Uk Tesco give club card points for using your own bag/s but how much I do not know but at least it may be an encouragement to some??.

11:48AM PDT on Apr 1, 2012

I think much comes from Cruise & other ships Who should be made to bring their garbage to port before they can replenish supplies, that might get them to their senses.

2:07PM PST on Jan 7, 2012

In the UK, where I live, our Government (led by the EU) has encouraged supermarkets not to give away so many throw-away plastic bags - the threat was that they would be taxed if their use wasn't reduced. Our larger supermarkets (Wallmart, known in the UK as Asda is the exception) have encouraged their customers to re-use bags, plastic or cloth, by giving them a small reward for doing so. This has (apparently) reduced by millions the number of plastic bags that are given out every year and consequently the number that end up in land fill etc. It is ideas like this that can start to make a difference.

6:50PM PST on Dec 31, 2011

Yup, you are so right. We are so disconnected from our environment.

1:45PM PST on Dec 31, 2011

stil sad about htis situation

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