The Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP), also known as the North Pacific Garbage Patch or the Pacific Trash Vortex, is a growing collection of litter in the North Pacific Ocean. It was discovered by the yachtsman Charles Moore in 1997 during a yacht race. While crossing between Hawaii and California, Moore and his team observed millions of plastic pieces floating around their ship. The entire area is three times the size of France and is the largest accumulation of floating marine plastic globally.

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The GPGP actually comprises two patches of marine debris. The Western Garbage Patch (WGP) is located near Japan, while the Eastern Garbage Patch (EGP) is located between Hawaii and California. The patches are bound together by the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre. This is the system of swirling ocean currents within the North Pacific ocean.

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These spinning collections of debris are connected by the North Pacific Subtropical Convergence Zone. This is where cooler water from the north pole mixes with warmer water from the South Pacific. The zone behaves like a highway and pushes waste from one patch to another.

Despite the WGP and EGP being called “patches,” they are not actually large heaps of trash floating in the ocean. A lot of the GPGP comprises microplastics. These make the water look like a murky soup that is sprinkled with other items, including fishing equipment and other large plastic items. The ocean floor beneath the GPGP is also likely to be an underwater trash heap, as 70% of marine debris sinks below the water’s surface.

Four men sorting a pile of waste extracted from the GPGP

What is in the GPGP?

Though different types of waste enter the ocean, there are two reasons why plastic specifically makes up the majority of marine debris. Firstly, it is durable and easy to manufacture so it is consequently being used more throughout various industries. Secondly, unlike other types of trash and waste, plastic goods do not biodegrade. Instead, they break down into smaller pieces called microplastics.

The two ways that plastics are broken down into microplastics are by the sun and by the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre. Sunlight breaks down small plastic items such as bags, bottle tops and water bottles through a process called photodegradation. This is when substances are continuously exposed to light, they begin to break down. Meanwhile, the gyre churns and breaks down large plastic items into small microplastic particles. Microplastics do not biodegrade and are extremely difficult to extract during cleaning efforts.

While no one really knows how much debris is part of the GPGP, current estimates indicate that it contains 80,000 tons of plastic waste. Some of this has been in the GPGP for decades. In fact, cleanups have found fishing buoys and crates dating between the 1960s-1970s, meaning that this debris has been accumulating over time. Unfortunately, this trend is continuing and the EGP and WGP are increasing in size each day.

Where does this waste come from?

Though it is usually believed that most marine waste originates from land, the majority of it is actually from offshore sources. Between 75-86% of the waste found in both the EGP and WGP comprises of plastic debris from abandoned, lost or otherwise discarded fishing gear (ALDFG). This includes nets, buoys, crates and eel traps. This is based on analyses conducted by the nonprofit organization The Ocean Cleanup, based in Amsterdam. They have been working since 2018 to remove the less common but larger debris.

The hard plastic waste found by The Ocean Cleanup comes from several industrialized fishing nations that operate offshore. These include Japan (34%), China (32%), South Korea (10%), the U.S. (7%), as well as Canada, Taiwan and other nations (17%).

Crate with plastic waste amidst a heap of fishing waste extracted from the GPGP

The impacts of the GPGP

Given that plastic pollution is only increasing in aquatic ecosystems, there are several impacts on biodiversity in these areas.

Sometimes, plastic is mistaken for food sources by marine life. For example, sea turtles may mistake plastic bags for jellyfish and consume them. This can lead to them choking or digesting plastic compounds which negatively impacts their health and reproduction. Meanwhile, albatrosses and other seabirds may perceive resin pellets as fish eggs. If they are fed to the chicks, they will either die from malnourishment or ruptured organs.

Though microplastic particles are small, they can have devastating impacts on entire food systems. Microplastics can also block sunlight from reaching algae and plankton under the water’s surface. These organisms require sunlight for photosynthesis and are the primary autotrophs in the food system. Larger animals that feed on algae and plankton like various types of fish, can be impacted if these small organisms cannot produce nutrients to sustain themselves. This throws off animal populations throughout the food web and will eventually result in seafood being less available and affordable for people.

Additionally, when microplastics are accidentally ingested by sea life, the chemicals within and pollutants absorbed by these particles impact the health of living organisms. This can also have repercussions up the food chain and thus impact marine life and humans.

With regard to larger plastic items, particularly those used for fishing, larger marine life is at risk. Seals, dolphins and other medium-to-large animals can get tangled in abandoned fishing equipment like nets. These are often discarded due to negligence, inclement weather and illegal fishing activities.

Heap of waste, primarily fishing materials extracted from the GPGP

What can we do about it?

Since waste that contributes to the GPGP is made up of pollution from various countries, there will not be a particular nation that will take responsibility or provide funding to clean it up. However, countries and non-governmental organizations can work together to have larger positive impacts.

One such example of this is how The Ocean Cleanup organization wishes to extract 90% of marine plastic waste by 2040. In the last year, their team has removed over 100 metric tons of floating plastic waste from the ocean. However, the efficacy and long-term impacts of these activities are questionable and will likely disrupt marine ecosystems.

There are several challenges that groups are facing to clean up the GPGP. One is that the technology we have to remove microplastics from water is very basic. Using these methods inevitably disrupts marine life. However, only removing the larger plastic waste items is not enough to create a lasting, positive impact. Researchers and large organizations need to take action to explore how to best extract both microplastic and large plastic waste without excessive harm to aquatic life.

While efforts to clean up the WGP and EGP are slowly underway by large organizations, we as consumers can limit or even eliminate our use of plastic products. Instead, biodegradable and/or reusable alternatives are best. This way we can limit the land-based plastic that can flow into the ocean via water channels. Being more mindful of how we consume plastics in all aspects of our lives is key to living more sustainably.

Via Popsci, The Ocean Cleanup and National Geographic

Images via The Ocean Cleanup; header image via Unsplash