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The Great Pacific Garbage Patch

In 2050, there will be more plastic in the ocean by weight than fish

Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2016

Plastic grocery bags, drinks bottles, clothing tags, flip-flops, these are just some of the things that can be found in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a swirl of plastic rubbish the size of Texas floating in the Pacific Ocean. It is hard to measure how much plastic rubbish is floating around in the oceans, but it has been estimated that 8 million metric tons of plastic are added to the oceans every year, including 236,000 tons of microplastics (Jambeck, 2015). This is equal to more than one full rubbish truck of plastic dumped into our ocean every minute (Pennington, 2016).

The rubbish is spread out, making it hard to clear

What Happens To The Plastics In The Ocean

It is estimated that there are 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic debris in the ocean, 229,000 tons of which is floating on the surface, and 4 billion plastic microfibers per square kilometre litter is in the deep sea (National Geographic, 2015). These trillions of pieces of rubbish have formed five huge rubbish patches, including the Great Pacific Garbage patch which is larger than the size of Texas.

Each person is estimated to consume "a credit card worth of plastic every week"

Wit, Bigaud, 2019

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP) is the largest of the five offshore zones where plastic has accumulated in the oceans, it is located halfway between Hawaii and California. This huge area of floating rubbish has been created by plastic waste entering the oceans from water ways. Scientists and environmentalist estimate that between 1.15 and 2.41 million tonnes of plastic is entering oceans each year from rivers and water outlets, they have found that more than half of this plastic is less dense than the water, meaning that it will not sink once it encounters the sea, but float around, following the currents, collecting in the swirls.

Stronger, more buoyant plastics, are not easily broken down, this is especially true in the marine environment, they float on the waters, being transported over large distances. Eventually they reach an area where the water swirls bring the plastic together into a patch, like being trapped in a whirlpool that never empties. Once in these whirlpools, or gyres, they are unlikely to leave the area until they have broken down into smaller microplastics. The breakdown is caused by the effects of sun, waves and marine life, such as microbes, breaking the plastic into mall fragments. As more and more plastics are discarded into the environment the concentration of plastic in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch will continue to increase.

Where Does The Rubbish Come From?

A lot of the rubbish that people throw away ends up being disposed of incorrectly, dumped, or sent to landfill. Even cleaning and separating items for recycling doesn't work well.

In 2018 35 million tons of plastic were produced in the United States, only 8.7 percent of which was recycled.

(EPA, 2021)

Avoiding plastic today is virtually impossible, it has become ingrained in how we live, as individuals and as a society. Even when we try to do "the right thing", we reuse, we recycle, we reduce our use of plastics, there is still a huge amount that ends up in the seas and oceans. The routes that plastics take are similar across the world:

  1. Landfill Waste – Rubbish is collected and taken to landfill in trucks and a lot of waste escapes these trucks during this process, being carried away by the wind. If not collected and disposed of properly it can end up in drains or other waterways before being washed out to sea.

  2. Littering – Rubbish that is dropped in the street, in parks, by rivers, can be carried away by rain water and the wind only to end up in streams, rivers and the sea. This is a particular problem at beaches where bottles, beach balls and other items can be blown into the water and carried away before they can be retrieved.

  3. Disposal By Toilet – Sanitary products, cleaning wipes and other bathroom products, are often flushed down the toilet or drain. Microplastics can also be created when clothes are washed and microfibers and microplastics from synthetic fabrics are released into wastewater from washing machines. These particles are too small to be captured in wastewater treatment plants and end up being washed out to sea, although some of them will end up in treated water that is then pumped into our homes to become the water that we drink and cook with.

  4. Fishing Waste – The fishing industry is responsible for an extensive amount of the plastic in waterways. Fishing boats can lose or abandon fishing gear in the ocean creating deadly traps for marine life. This can include nets, ropes, pulleys and other equipment. These things are meant to trap fish and they will continue too do so when they are left free in the water. Many fish die this way when they become trapped and can no longer get to food.

Can This Be Fixed?

The Ocean Cleanup are one of a few organisations that are actively monitoring and working to clean up the waste in the oceans. They say that their aim is to put themselves out of business by removing the waste already in the oceans and preventing more from being added. As well as cleaning up the oceans they also work to remove waste from rivers before it reaches the ocean, preventing the problem before it starts. Of course we can all do our bit, make sure that we dispose of rubbish correctly, prepare anything to be recycled so that it can be used. This includes removing paper labels and plastic sleeves that cannot be recycled. Containers need to be washed out, greasy paper and card can't be recycled but could be disposed of with food waste, if the quantity is small. Foil also needs to be taken care of, it should be clean and small pieces of foil should be kept together and combined to make a lump of aluminium that can't get mixed up and lost.

Find out more from The Ocean Cleanup


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