The Great Pacific Garbage Patch

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By now, most of us are aware that there is a large patch of plastic floating in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. What many of us may not know is that it’s not made up of plastic bags and empty bottles. It’s made up of billions of tiny pieces of plastic and it’s basically invisible unless you’re floating in it. While this might sound better, it’s actually much worse for the environment – and for you.

FORMATION

Of the 90 million tonnes of plastic people use each year, about 10%, ends up in the ocean. 70% of that eventually sinks, but the other 30% is carried on the surface by ocean currents. When the plastic ends up in the waters of the Pacific, much of it is swept up into currents that lead to the Pacific Gyre. Garbage from the east coast of Asia takes roughly a year to reach it; garbage from the west coast of North America takes five years.

THE FIVE GYRES

Although not widely discussed, there are in fact five main gyres in the world’s oceans and several smaller gyres throughout Alaska and Antarctica. The most commonly discussed gyre is the North pacific Gyre, known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch due to the mass of marine debris that has collected there.

A GYRE

A gyre is a place where currents meet and form a whirlpool type system – this forms a meeting place for ocean debris. Millions of tiny and large pieces of plastics accumulate here: due to the currents they remain trapped here, breaking down over time to become smaller and smaller pieces of plastic until they eventually become plastic dust. This “dust” will never go away but will instead stay in the ocean accumulating toxins and working its way into the food chain as more animals digest these invisible and dangerous items of plastic waste.

Currents carry the plastic everywhere. Rubber ducks lost from a shipping container in the North Pacific were found near Scotland, in the North Atlantic. Tsunami debris from Japan arrived in North America, after crossing the largest ocean on Earth in just 10 months.

SIZE

The borders of the plastic garbage patch are difficult to determine because much plastic is in pieces too small to be seen by satellites or planes. Estimates of the size range from about 650,000 square kilometres (an area roughly the size of Texas) to 15.5 million square kilometres, which would mean that the garbage patch covers about 10 percent of the entire Pacific Ocean.

10% of 90 million tonnes

of garbage, annually, ends up in the ocean

Approx. 18,000

pieces of plastic litter are scattered on every square kilometre of the ocean

1/5 of the garbage

in the ocean comes from ship dumping. The rest is from land

90% of the garbage (plastics)

in the ocean are non-biodegradable. This means it NEVER disappears

PLASTIC IS MADE OF TOXINS

331 million barrels of petroleum and natural gas liquids were used to make US plastic products, equal to about 5% of the national petroleum consumption.

Plastics contain toxic chemicals:

PHTHALATES

FLAME-RETARDANTS

BISPHENOL-A

More toxins adhere as plastic breaks down

40% contained PESTICIDES like DDT. 50% contained PCBs (BANNED by US Congress in 1979 for having various NEUROTOXIC EFFECTS). 80% contained PAHs (may be HIGHLY CARCINOGENIC)

PLASTIC CHEMICALS

Plastics in the water absorb floating chemicals, which are attracted to the plastics’ oil base. Many of these chemicals are known as persistent organic pollutants, which may never leave the environment or break down. These chemicals include: ALDRIN (insecticide) • CHLORDANE (pesticide) •DIELDRIN (insecticide) • DDT (pesticide) • DIOXINS (toxic chemicals that are an industrial waste product of actions like metal smelting and paper bleaching) • ENDRIN (insecticide) • FURANS (toxic chemicals used as solvents) • HEPTACHLOR (insecticide) • HEXACHLOROBENZENE (fungicide) • Polychlorinated Biphenyls (or PCBs, coolant and lubricant) • TOXAPHENE (insecticide)

PHOTODEGRADATION

The sun breaks down plastic into smaller and smaller pieces, but can never break it down entirelyUnlike organic materials, which eventually biodegrade, the plastic breaks into ever-smaller pieces, while still remaining a polymer. As it breaks apart, the plastic ultimately becomes small enough to be ingested by aquatic organisms, which reside near the ocean’s surface.

Plastic waste enters the food chain.

IMPACT OF PLASTIC POLLUTION ON MARINE LIFE

  • >80% of the rubbish found on coasts around the world on International Clean-up Day is single-use plastic
  • 54% of the 120 marine mammal species on the threatened list have been observed entangled in or ingesting plastic

  • 73.9 million pounds of plastic are spread throughout the world’s gyres

  • 92.5% of dead seabirds (northern Fulmars) in a study had ingested plastic in amounts equal to 5% of their body weight

  • Chemicals used in plastics have been found in fish, molluscs, sea mammals and other sea life, which in turn is consumed by us

  • Microplastic concentrations in the North Pacific Gyre increased 100 times in the past four years

WHAT CAN WE DO TO HELP?

  • USE LESS PLASTIC
  • Instead of plastic bags, use  reusable bags
  • Say no to straws 
  • Use your own utensils instead of single-use ones
  • To-go cups. Go with reusable mugs and cups
  • Repair or upgrade your electronics. Recycle the old item when you need something new
  • Buy items with minimal packaging
  • Buy clothing with natural materials; synthetic fibres pollute the ocean

Read the rest of this article in No. 97 Issue 4/2013 of Asian Geographic magazine by subscribing here or check out all of our publications here.

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