When you throw away your trash and it “goes away”, do you know where that “away” is? One of the possibilities is the ocean, where trash piles together in five offshore plastic zones. The largest of the five is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP), located between California and Hawaii. The ocean plastic zones are formed by rotating currents that form gyres, and the GPGP is located in the north pacific gyre.
When you take a trip to the beach, you may notice debris entering the ocean, though that is only a minuscule amount of the trash entering the world’s waterways. It is estimated that more than two million tons of plastic enter the ocean each year, and half of it is not able to sink and floats on the surface. Depending on the durability of the debris, it can travel far distances. If the plastics make their way to a gyre, they will remain in that area until they are photodegraded or broken into smaller pieces. These small fragments are considered microplastics and their concentrations are continuing to increase in the world’s oceans.
To put the world’s largest accumulation of ocean plastic into perspective, the GPGP measures approximately two million square kilometers or twice the size of Texas. Due to it covering such a large distance, it contains almost two trillion shards of plastic and other forms of debris, constituting an estimated eighty-thousand tons. There is significantly more debris entering the patch than there is being removed. The most frequently removed materials from the GPGP is polyethylene, polypropylene, and discarded fishing gear. The plastics are further categorized into groups based on sizes beginning at five hundredths of a centimeter to fifty centimeters, consisting of microplastics, mesoplastics, macroplastics, and megaplastics. It has been recorded that ninety-two percent of the total mass of the debris is greater than five-tenths of a centimeter, as well as forty-six percent of the mass being fishing nets.
The debris and plastics can be resilient to the environment, though ways they are broken down is sun exposure, waves, marine life, and temperature changes. The aspect of marine life is not a positive one, as the species consume the plastics the toxins are absorbed and bioaccumulation begins. If we consume the animals that have ingested the plastics, we receive those toxins as well. The level of toxicity increases as the food chain progresses. Therefore, it is important to know which marine species should be avoided.
Numerous research expeditions have been completed and will continue in the future to gain more knowledge on the state of the GPGP, debris distribution, and its effect on local marine life. Cost-effective methods of cleaning the garbage patches have yet to be recognized, due to its intensity. Prevention of increased plastics entering the gyres, includes marine debris awareness for the public and encouraging the removal of debris found at shorelines. This is a task individuals can complete without training and they can stop plastics from entering the oceans.
It is our fault the plastics are taking over the oceans. We need to cut down on our use of plastic materials and other single-use items. If we want to fix the problem, we have to be the solution!