The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is an accumulation of trash floating in the Pacific Ocean between Japan and North America. The name can be deceiving though, because the patch is actually broken up into multiple trash vortexes; one close to Japan, and the other between Hawaii and California. According to National Geographic, the North Pacific Subtropical Convergence Zone is what moves garbage from one patch to the other. Within the Zone, they explain that there are ocean currents and wind patterns, which disperse the garbage; but it also creates a circular clockwise flow. The center of this is quite stable, so trash tends to be drawn inwards to the center where it becomes trapped.
The debris collects because most of it is not biodegradable and is unable to return to its original state. Instead, it just breaks into smaller pieces called micro-plastics. Like many, you may be thinking of a large island of garbage in the center of our ocean, however, that is not the case. It is not a large mass that can be seen from space, but rather more of a soup. Most of the trash floating in the ocean is made up of tiny bits of plastic, called micro-plastics. It can make the water look cloudy, and it is mixed in with larger items like fishing nets.
Making changes to reverse climate change and protect the environment has become more important than ever – here are 25 reasons to pause before getting your coffee in a to-go cup, using plastic bags, or buying that plastic water bottle.
25 It's made up of Millions of Tonnes of Plastic
According to the Ocean Cleanup, there are about 1.15 to 2.41 million tonnes of plastic entering into the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP) annually. Of those, 236,000 tonnes are microplastics, as discovered by Earth Day Network.
They estimate that every minute, one garbage truck of plastic is dumped into our oceans. Some of this escapes from landfills into rivers and ends up in our oceans, others are carelessly tossed in.
24 That's about 1.8 Trillion Pieces
Ocean Cleanup estimates that there are about 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic in the GPGP. Over half of this is composed of single-use plastic. Plastic Oceans states, “we have developed a ‘disposable’ lifestyle and estimates are that around 50% of plastic is used just once and thrown away” winding up in our oceans.
Microplastics made up 94 percent of the total pieces, however, it only accounted for 8 percent of the mass (PBS).
23 250 Pieces Of Plastic Per Person On The Planet
This is about 250 pieces of garbage for every human in the world (Ocean Cleanup). An average person in North America or Western Europe consumes about 220 pounds of plastic annually. Most of this comes in the form of packaging.
In Asia, average plastic use is only a fifth of that at 44 pounds per person… however, that figure is expected to grow as economic growth continues (according to The Globalist).
22 It's Worse Than We Thought
There is 4 to 16 times more plastic than estimated in the past. The GPGP isn’t the only area impacted though. This is only a portion of plastic in our oceans. There are five massive patches of plastic in oceans globally (Earth Day Network). A plastic bag was even found in the Mariana Trench (10,898m below the surface), as was stated by the UN Environment. Even the largest depths of the ocean have been impacted.
By 2030, plastic is expected to be leaking into the ocean at a rate of two trucks per minute. By 2050, the amount of plastic is predicted to increase tenfold. At that point, there will be more plastic in the oceans than there are fish by weight (Earth Day Network).
21 All of This Weighs About 80,000 Tonnes
Currently, the amount of plastic in the oceans is estimated at 80,000 tonnes in the densest center area (according to Ocean Cleanup). Meanwhile, according to the Telegraph, that is about a fifth of the weight of all of the fish in the ocean (and is equivalent to 500 jumbo jets)!
If aquariums were realistic and reflected the environment of the ocean, one out of every five fish would not be a fish at all, but a plastic water bottle, floating to the surface.
20 There's an Outer Region Of The Patch that's even bigger
Ocean Cleanup only accounted for the denser center-area in their study. They chose to be more conservative in their estimations. If the outer region was considered, then the total weight would be closer to 100,000 tonnes.
The number of pieces of plastic in the GPGP could be up to 3.6 trillion pieces. It could weigh more than 43,000 cars.
19 Not Just Floating On The Surface
The seafloor beneath may also be an underwater trash heap. Plastic has been found in the ocean as far as we can find. Which means that it can be contaminating even the most remote locations (Earth Day Network).
It is difficult to determine how much trash is in the GPGP. Not all of the trash can float on the surface due to its density. Much of the trash sinks centimeters or meters beneath the surface, and Oceanographers and ecologists discovered that about 70% of debris sinks to the ocean floor (National Geographic).
18 1.6 Million Square Kilometres
All of this garbage covers about 1.6 million square kilometres. This is an area twice the size of Texas and three times the size of France (Ocean Cleanup). To calculate this, international teams from the Ocean Cleanup used 18 ships to survey difference spots across the patch and conducted aircraft surveys. They covered approximately 120 square miles and used math models to estimate the scale of the GPGP.
17 80% of the garbage comes from North America and Asia
About 80% of the garbage comes from land-based activities in North America and Asia according to National Geographic. The current estimates are that trash from the coast of North America can take around six years to travel to the patch, and trash from Japan and Asia takes around a year.
Half of the plastic items collected had production dates (all the way back to 1977). The trash had legible script from nine languages, and the country of production was found for 12 different countries. The writing on a third of the trash was Japanese and another third was Chinese (according to National Geographic).
16 20% of the garbage comes From Boaters, Cargo Ships and Oil Rigs
The remaining 20 percent comes from boaters, offshore oil rigs and large cargo ships that dump or lose debris, as was found by National Geographic. They state that these ships either dump or lose debris directly into the water. Most of this accounts for abandoned fishing gear, including fishing nets, ropes, oyster spacers, eel traps, crates and baskets. They found the number to be unexpectedly high (National Geographic).
15 It's Mostly Single-Use Plastic and Fishing Nets
The majority of this debris is fishing nets, plastic bags, bottle caps, water bottles, styrofoam cups, computers and even LEGO (National Geographic). Plastic is cheap and versatile, however, its becoming unsustainable.
Over 500 billion plastic bags are used worldwide, which means one million bags are used every minute. According to Plastic Ocean, a plastic bag has an average “working life” of 15 minutes. Over 100.7 billion plastic beverage bottles were sold in the US in 2014, which equates to 315 bottles per person. 14 percent of all trash comes from beverage containers, excluding caps and labels (Plastic Ocean).
Plastics durability makes it an obvious industry choice, however, it does not biodegrade, which is why the majority of all trash in the GPGP is plastic (National Geographic).
14 46% of all Mass Is From Fishing Nets, Causing Incidents
National Geographic found that about 46% of the mass in the GPGP is fishing nets, which are dangerous for animals who swim or collide into them and cannot get out. Interaction or collisions with these nets are known as ghost nets. Oftentimes these are purposely discarded or accidentally lost which drift through the ocean.
They have the potential to entangle many different marine animals (whales, seals and turtles most of all). With an estimated 100,000 marine animals having interactions with nets annually (National Geographic).
13 It's Toxic for Sea Surface Feeders
There is an estimated 180 times more plastic currently floating on the surface of the GPGP than there is marine life. Any marine animals that inhabit, fly around, or migrate through the area then consume plastic because they cannot tell the difference or there are no other food sources (according to Ocean Cleanup).
As we can see in this rather saddening image above, the situation is drastic and needs some serious intervention.
12 The Plastics Leach Out Dangerous Chemicals
Since 84 percent of plastic was found to have at least one bio-accumulative toxic chemical, any animals eating plastic are then ingesting the chemicals in the plastic (according to Ocean Cleanup).
Plastics both leach out and absorb harmful pollutants. As the plastic breaks down they leach chemicals and it can be linked to environmental and health problems (according to National Geographic).
11 The Coral Is Becoming diseased
The likelihood of coral becoming diseased increases from 4 percent to 89 percent when it comes into contact with marine plastic. It can injure the ‘skin’ of the coral which allows for the spread of infection. As they are very sensitive, this process can happen quite rapidly.
Coral reefs are home to more than 25% of marine life, therefore, this can threaten the health and safety of many species (Earth Day Network).
10 Sadly, It Threatens Some Species' Existence
Believe it or not, 17% of marine life affected by plastic is listed on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species. That means that not only are we harming the environment for regular fish and sea life, but we're putting some at the threat of extinction.
Current studies cited by Ocean Cleanup have found that over 700 species of animals have encountered ocean debris. Over 92 percent of these interactions are with plastic.
9 It Disturbs The Natural Food Chain
As microplastic and trash collects at the surface, it blocks sunlight from reaching essential organisms such as plankton and algae beneath the surface. If their populations become threatened than the animals that feed on these organisms have less food. Once those animals decrease, National Geographic warns that there are fewer food sources for apex predators like whales, sharks and tuna.
8 Animals Often Confuse Plastic For Food
Many animals that inhabit the ocean can’t distinguish between plastic items and food. Animals who eat plastic often become malnourished because they can’t digest plastic and it fills their stomachs, preventing them from eating real food (Ocean Cleanup). According to Earth Day Network, many sea turtles caught by fisheries operating in and around the patch have found that 74 percent of their diets are composed of plastic (by dry weight).
This is because they often mistake things such as plastic bags for jellyfish (National Geographic).
7 And This Affects The Human Food Chain Too
Once plastic is in the marine food web then it can contaminate the human food chain too. Chemicals in plastics enter in the animal that is feeding on plastic and then the chemicals are passed on to the predator. It then makes it way up the food chain through bioaccumulation.
The chemicals affecting the animal could then be present in the human as well (Ocean Cleanup). Many fish that humans consume including trout, cisco, and perch have most likely ingested plastic (Earth Day Network).
6 There's a substantial Impact On The Economy
The United Nations found that the environmental damage caused by plastic to ocean ecosystems is around 13 billion USD. This includes beach cleanup projects and the financial losses of fisheries (Ocean Cleanup). As fish populations are increasingly impacted by plastic, we'll see a jump in the price of fish (National Geographic).
5 It Doesn't Disappear. It Only Degrades Into Smaller Pieces
The garbage won’t leave the area until it degrades into smaller microplastics. This happens over time from the effects of sun, waves and marine life. It gives the water an appearance of soup, and makes up approximately 94% of the garbage patch. They can be found floating on the surface layers, but also on the ocean floor.
This is the type of fact that most of us are simply unaware of. However, it's important that we realize the unfortunate process we're contributing too.
4 Micro-Plastics Are More likely to be Mistaken For Food
Once the plastic breaks down into smaller pieces, it is more likely to be mistaken for food by marine animals. For example, Albatrosses mistake plastic resin pellets for fish eggs. They then feed these to their chicks (National Geographic). This is extremely harmful to their systems because their bodies cannot break down the debris. This can increase risk for disease and can affect reproduction (World Animal Protection).
3 It cannot be removed Without Impacting sea life
Cleaning up debris has proved extremely difficult. Many micro-plastics are the same size as smaller animals. Any nets designed to collect debris would also remove those animals. Even in the event that someone designed nets to catch just trash, the size of the ocean is too great. Current estimates determined that it would take 67 ships one year to clean less than 1 percent of the North Pacific Ocean (National Geographic).
2 The Concentration Of Trash Will Continue To Increase
Unfortunately, as more plastic is discarded into the environment the concentration will continue to increase. Unless there is a global agreement to put aside poor practices, this will only continue to grow.
Making small changes such as bringing your own coffee mug, buying a reusable water bottle, bringing your own shopping bags, bringing reusable glass or stainless steel straws, and switching to bamboo toothbrushes are all small easy changes that you can implement in your own life.
1 No country is taking responsibility to fund a cleanup
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is so far from any coastline that no one will take responsibility to fund a clean-up project. It would bankrupt any single nation that attempted this. However, there are many international organizations that are dedicated to preventing the patch from growing. Marine Insight lists at least 15 organizations fighting to make our oceans healthy once again: Marine Insight
References: National Geographic, Ocean Cleanup, Plastic Oceans, Earth Day Network, UN Environment, The Globalist, the Telegraph, PBS, Business Insider, World Animal Protection