Somewhere between 1.15 million to 2.41 million tonnes of plastic enter the ocean every year (that’s a truckload every minute). But where does it all go? A lot of plastic items will break down and sink, but those that won’t make their way to the bottom of the ocean, will get transported large distances, and end up in a garbage patches all over the world.
Ocean gyres and accumulation zones
The 5 largest accumulation zones of trash in our oceans, which are formed within areas called ‘ocean gyres’, are so big they are sometimes referred to as ‘floating plastic islands’. But what are ‘gyres’? The definition given by the U.S National Ocean Service (NOAA), of gyres is “large systems of circulating ocean currents, kind of like slow-moving whirlpools” that “help drive the so-called oceanic conveyor belt that helps circulate ocean waters around the globe”. These five systems, which are created by global wind patterns and tides and which collect and concentrate debris into patches, are the North Atlantic Gyre, the South Atlantic Gyre, the North Pacific Gyre, the South Pacific Gyre, and the Indian Ocean Gyre.
The circular motion of gyres draws floating debris (especially plastic) into its calm and stable center, where it then becomes trapped by the current. Once discarded items get in contact with currents, they can circulate this part of the ocean for years and years, causing irreparable damage to marine life. An example shared by the Nation Geographic regarding marine currents, described an imaginary, but realistic, voyage of a water bottle, showcasing how pollution truly is an international problem, as the oceans have no boundaries and connect us all! According to the example: “A plastic water bottle discarded off the coast of California […] takes the California Current south toward Mexico. There, it may catch the North Equatorial Current, which crosses the vast Pacific. Near the coast of Japan, the bottle may travel north on the powerful Kuroshiro Current. Finally, the bottle travels westward on the North Pacific Current.” Here, “The gently rolling vortexes of the Eastern and Western Garbage Patches gradually draw in the bottle”.
The Great Pacific Garbage patch
Located in the North Pacific Gyre, the most talked about garbage accumulation zone, also known as the Great Pacific Garbage patch (GPGP), or as Pacific trash vortex, spans halfway between Hawaii and California. The numbers regarding this ‘floating island’ are terrifying:
The GPGP is made up of at least 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic (250 pieces of debris for every single person in the world).
The plastic it collects is estimated to weigh close to 80,000 tonnes (That’s the same weight as 500 jumbo jets)!
The patch is 2 times the size of Texas, or, if you’re more knowledgeable in European geography, 3 times the size of France, measuring a total of 1.6 million square kilometers.
94% of objects can be identified as micro plastics (are you eating micro plastics?), while half of the total mass is occupied by abandoned fishing nets (ever heard of ‘Ghost netting’?).
Although the GPGP is the most infamous garbage patch, researchers have recently uncovered two more ‘floating islands’ of debris in the South Pacific Ocean and in the North Atlantic.
Unfortunately the amount of plastic that is entering the oceans, is increasing year by year, meaning that these patches and these accumulating areas, will only get bigger and bigger with time. This will further impact the ocean, marine life and our food chain.
Charles Moore, the man who originally discovered the vortex, has been quoted as saying that cleaning up the garbage patch would “bankrupt any country”. Although no country has actually tried to do something about the GPGP (specifically because being so far away from any country’s coastline, no nation has come forward to take responsibility for the patch and consequently, for funding for its cleanup) it’s not difficult to believe how expensive and how complicated a major cleanup operation would be.
Fortunately though, over the years, as awareness has grown, many individuals and international organizations, have started to dedicate themselves to finding solutions to the problem and preventing the patch from growing. Initiatives include solutions such as robots or machines that float around the ocean collecting trash, but also ways to try and prevent plastic from entering the water in the first place.
The project that has captured most people’s attention in the last couple of years is the Ocean Cleanup Project. First unveiled in 2012 by its inventor, Boyan Slat, it made headlines worldwide in June of 2019, with the launch of a 600-metre (2,000-foot) free-floating boom. The boom, officially referred to as System 001/B, is a self-contained system that uses the natural forces of the ocean to ‘passively catch and concentrate’ plastics and other floating debris. In October 2019, nearly four months after first being trialed, the dutch inventor tweeted a picture of the collected rubbish, which included a car wheel, and captioned it: “Our ocean cleanup system is now finally catching plastic, from one-ton ghost nets to tiny micro plastics! Also, anyone missing a wheel?”
Even though this project has show early signs of success, cleaning up every single debris in our oceans won’t be easy. Items break down in mirco plastics and sink down to the bottom of the ocean where they become practically impossible to reach.
Although the road ahead is still very complicated and at the moment there really seems to be no end in sight, as long as individuals and organization keep raising awareness and keep the attention of the world focused on the problems regarding ocean pollution, single-use plastics and ghost netting, we are definitely getting closer to turning things around!