The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is the largest accumulation of marine debris on the planet, and is located between the west coast of the U.S. and Japan. It is made up of two smaller garbage patches -- the Eastern Garbage Patch, which is between Hawaii and California, and the Western Garbage Patch, off the east coast of Japan. There is approximately 79,000 tons of plastic floating in this area.
What do garbage patches contain?
Some of the debris is made up of microplastics, which are very small pieces of plastic. Since plastic is not biodegradable, it never fully breaks down but instead splits into smaller and smaller pieces. These microplastics often make the water look like a cloudy soup because they're so small! Microscopic organisms such as plankton are at risk of ingesting microplastics.
Other debris found in garbage patches include larger pieces of plastic that have drifted out to sea from land activities, or that have broken off of boats or oil rigs.
A study conducted by researchers at the Ocean Cleanup Foundation surveyed the patch to determine the amount and types of plastic in the GPGP. To do this, they attached sensors to an aircraft to take 3D scans of the plastic samples. Once the scans were completed, they calculated that there were approximately 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic, and estimated that 92% of the mass is larger pieces of plastic, with 8% being microplastics. They then compared their measurements with past studies of the GPGP, finding that plastic pollution levels have increased exponentially over the years and that the amount of plastic being deposited into the water continues to exceed the plastic being taken out.
Impacts of garbage patches
Ingestion: Marine animals often eat plastic and other debris by mistake. In addition to being toxic, these items also take up room in their stomachs, preventing them from eating food they should. One example is the Laysan albatross chicks residing in Oahu, Hawaii: 45% of their wet mass is composed of plastics from the GPGP.
Plastic is especially harmful for sea surface feeders migrating through the GPGP, since there is 180x more plastic floating above the ocean in this patch than marine life. 84% of this plastic is found to contain at least one toxic biochemical.
Entanglement of animals: Fishing nets make up a significant portion of garbage patches. These nets can become tangled around dolphins, seals, turtles, and other animals in a way known as "ghost fishing," which can often drown them.
Bioaccumulation: Microplastics accumulate inside small organisms through ingestion and make their way through the marine food chain, eventually ending up on our plates. This can affect food safety and different food industries.
Multiple organizations are dedicated to working towards cleaner oceans and preventing the patch from expanding. However, cleaning up the plastic is not as easy as it may seem. Microplastics are too small to be caught in nets, and the sheer size of the patch makes it challenging to contain all the debris. The National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration's Marine Debris Program estimates that it would take 67 ships one year to clean up less than 1% of the North Pacific Ocean.
While cleanup efforts are difficult, scientists are working towards sustainable solutions. Many recommend limiting your use of plastic bottles, or moving to using more biodegradable plastics. Organizations like the Plastic Pollution Coalition are using direct action campaigns to support businesses in their transition to biodegradable plastics.