The Great Pacific Garbage Island Isn’t What You Think

By David NaarLast Updated Apr 18, 2020 9:59:07 PM ET
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Photo Courtesy: BRIGHT SIDE/YouTube

Known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch or simply Garbage Island, the massive floating garbage dump swirling around in the Pacific Ocean is growing ever larger in size and scope. Its impact on wildlife, shorelines and public awareness of oceanwide pollution is remarkable.

While the collection of debris is large enough to be an actual island, it’s certainly not an island you would ever want to visit. So, what are scientists doing to clean up this epic mess? Here's what you need to know about the unsettling environmental threat to our largest ocean.

It’s Technically Many Garbage Islands

Although it's often referred to as a single entity, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is more of a continually morphing island chain rather than a single mass of trash. Due to ocean currents, intense weather conditions and variable dumping patterns, three distinct patches have developed within the Pacific Ocean.

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Photo Courtesy: NOAA/Wikimedia Commons

These vast swaths of trash occasionally do meet and converge, but they tend to separate and reform into three distinct patches over time. This phenomenon makes clean-up attempts extremely difficult. The garbage caught in the Pacific currents is always on the move!

Most of the Trash Is Close to the Surface

If you sailed out to one of the three areas that make up Great Pacific Garbage Island, you wouldn't be able to plant your flag in the trash and set up camp. About 14 billion pounds of trash is dumped into the ocean every year, and most of the stuff floats to the surface of the water and slowly degrades.

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Photo Courtesy: giogio55/Pixabay

Some trash is eaten by wildlife or washes ashore for people to dispose of all over again. Still, almost none of it clumps together with enough solid mass to form a stable, land-like surface.

Most of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch Is Plastic

Although there are many forms and sources of pollution, most of the trash floating in the Pacific Ocean right now is made of plastic. Up to 12 million tons of plastic are unceremoniously dumped into the world's oceans every year. Shipping containers carrying brand new plastic products sometimes fall into the water during rough weather as well.

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Photo Courtesy: Horia Varlan/Flickr

Although it might be briefly funny if thousands of rubber duckies washed up on shore around the world, the underlying problem is harmful and not funny at all. Plastic takes a very long time to decompose, and its impact on ocean life is long-lasting.

Plastics in the Ocean Break Down Slowly

Even completely organic substances can take ages to decompose, so when you consider man-made, synthetic substances, the lifespan can get more than a little crazy. While an orange peel may take half a year to fully decompose, plastic can take a thousand years or more to return to a natural state.

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Photo Courtesy: Clandon haverford/Wikimedia Commons

Simply cutting up or melting plastic won’t solve the problem. Small pieces of plastic, known as microplastic, pose a huge risk when they are ingested, inhaled or absorbed. Additionally, burning plastic produces toxic fumes that are deadly when inhaled, and those gases cannot simply be vented into the air.

Ocean Plastics Become Microplastics Over Time

One of the most dangerous aspects of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is the formation of microplastics. The large plastic containers and bottles that initially call the Pacific Ocean current home eventually erode into tiny plastic beads and strands that are almost invisible to the naked eye. These microplastics are easily swallowed, inhaled and transported.

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Photo Courtesy: Swoolverton/Wikimedia Commons

In the ocean, they can build up in an animal's digestive tract, causing painful and potentially fatal blockages. The tiny particles can also accumulate on beaches and shorelines, resulting in plastic-filled sands and soils. Most tap water is inundated with the stuff, although new technologies are attempting to focus on keeping microplastics out of our drinking water.

Old Fishing Gear Is Also a Problem

Although consumer waste makes up a significant portion of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, fishing gear is also present and can be far deadlier for unlucky fish and mammals. Old fishing nets, rigs and other equipment that drift out to sea — or deliberately tossed in the sea — could end up dooming entire generations of marine life.

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Photo Courtesy: NOAA Photo Library/Flickr

Without humans to pull the nets up and out of the water, any fish that get caught struggle to escape until they perish from starvation or exhaustion. A single floating net can cause a massive amount of damage, and hundreds of thousands — possibly even millions — of net pieces are lost in the ocean.

Much of the Garbage Eventually Washes Ashore

Just like the debris on the swirling sides of a hurricane, the trash that ends up on the outside of the rotating trash patches tends to eject outwards and wash ashore. Quite a bit of garbage that washes onto the shores of the western United States, eastern Japan and even Australia was once part of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

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Photo Courtesy: Justin Dolske/Wikimedia Commons

While this gives beachcombers and environmentalists a chance to properly dispose of some of the offshoots of the patch, it doesn't bode well for the animals and plants that live along the shorelines. Turtles, crabs, seabirds and even some types of seaweed can suffer.

The Amount of Beach Garbage Will Increase

Because so much trash gets dumped into the ocean every year — and most of it takes a very long time to travel — the amount of beach trash is only going to increase over time. Also, areas that were previously unaffected by the Great Pacific Garbage Patch may find that they are suddenly getting unwanted deliveries from a particular floating island.

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Photo Courtesy: Adam Jones/Flickr

To protect the wildlife, environment and tourist industry in these areas, local governments need to invest more funds in beach clean-up events and initiatives. However, trashed beaches and shorelines are only a symptom of a much larger problem.

Full Recovery Requires Time

If the central mass of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch disappeared right now, it would still take centuries for those tiny bits of wandering plastic and debris to wash onto shore somewhere. That's why beach clean-ups are only a part of the overall pollution solution. To truly tackle the problem of plastic in our oceans, we have to change the way we dispose of trash.

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Photo Courtesy: sergeitokmakov/Pixabay

The entire world will need to agree on proper fishing, recycling and waste management policies before the ocean has any chance of returning to its former glory. The average consumer's habits would also have to change, and they would need to embrace biodegradable alternatives to plastic products.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch Is Massive

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch should never be considered an island for at least two good reasons. First, the patch consists of a lot of floating plastic, half-sunken fishing nets and random debris. It can't support much weight, and it doesn't consist of soil, so it's certainly not land.

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Photo Courtesy: Steven Guerrisi/Flickr

Second, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is twice the size of Texas. Yes, you read that right — and now we have your attention. Rather than thinking of this watery trash dump as a plastic-ridden island, it's more realistic to think of it as a small continent made entirely of trash.

The Danger to Wildlife Is Immense

The danger that plastics, fishing gear and assorted human debris poses to oceanic wildlife is substantial. In addition to polluting underwater ecosystems around the world, ocean garbage patches poison the fish, aquatic mammals and algae that live there.

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Photo Courtesy: Oceana/YouTube

Around 100,000 marine animals die every year due to ocean pollution. This number doesn’t include the billions of phytoplankton and zooplankton that die, thanks to human-generated garbage. While many media outlets occasionally focus on a single species that is affected by ocean plastic, the truth is that our garbage affects every species in the water — and on the land!

Some Species Are Hit Harder Than Others

Of course, all animals suffer from living in highly polluted environments, but some types of seabirds, fish and amphibians are more dramatically affected by the garbage patches than others. For example, albatrosses that live on Midway Atoll in the Pacific Ocean are dying in huge numbers because of the plastic pollution.

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Photo Courtesy: NOAA/Wikimedia Commons

Approximately 10,000 pounds of plastic trash are swallowed by the adult birds every year and brought back to the island. The tiny chicks, recently hatched, feed on this regurgitated plastic until they die. It seems that albatross parents can't differentiate between food and garbage.

The Garbage Could Transport Invasive Species

While the great roiling garbage patches continue to cause destruction and death wherever they float — typically in the same set pattern, thanks to ocean currents — they also help invasive species find new shores and new homes. While this may be a huge bonus for the invading species, it's pretty bad news for the native ones.

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Photo Courtesy: Alexander/Flickr

Invasive species of plants and wildlife are dangerous. Native species typically don’t have any defense mechanisms to protect themselves from the non-native plants and animals. When an invasive species shows up, it typically wipes out everything that lived there before it that could compete for its survival.

The Entire Food Chain Is Disrupted

While the Great Pacific Garbage Dump naturally causes harm to all portions of the aquatic food chain, it can work its dark magic in some pretty sneaky and surprising ways. A massive, sunlight-blocking collection of trash can kill phytoplankton, for example. Without phytoplankton, both tiny fish and enormous mammals, such as baleen whales, starve to death.

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Photo Courtesy: Viral Press/YouTube

Without small fish to eat, larger fish also find their diet extremely limited. These larger predators may start snacking on plastic trash between meals. In time, the plastic builds up in the digestive systems of these animals, eventually resulting in death.

Floating Booms Can Help

Floating booms or floater lines can help corral trash into one pre-defined area for easier clean-up and removal. Boyan Slat, a young Dutch entrepreneur and ex-engineering student, helped design and engineer some of the most substantial floating barriers that are currently in use.

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Photo Courtesy: Grendelkhan/Wikimedia Commons

These barriers allow fish to pass safely beneath them and only collect bits of debris that float at the surface. This feature makes them ideal for targeting pesky bits of plastic that would otherwise wash ashore or cause harm to sea creatures and wildlife.

Experienced Divers Also Lend a Hand

Experienced divers often lend a hand to help remove more substantial trash from the ocean's depths. Military organizations like the U.S. Marines are particularly effective at locating and eliminating dense pieces of debris that may sink rather than float.

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Photo Courtesy: Lance Cpl. Nicole Rogge/The United States Marines Corps

This part of the process is extremely important because most modern ocean-cleaning rigs are designed to avoid skimming the bottom of the ocean floor. Consequently, heavier pieces of trash tend to collect and clutter up specific regions on the bottom of the ocean. Without the efforts of these considerate divers, there would be far more garbage collecting on the ocean floor right now.

Clean-Up Tactics Are Getting Smarter

The types of clean-up mechanisms currently being produced and designed are far more advanced than the ones employed 20 or even 10 years ago. Some of the most technologically sophisticated systems have GPS systems, solar lighting and fish-friendly underwater skirts.

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Photo Courtesy: Boyan Slat/Wikimedia Commons

As technology continues to improve and become more innovative, the clean-up efforts directed at the ocean's trash gyres will likely follow suit. This results in more effective solutions that provide quicker results, which could significantly reduce the amount of time expected for the ocean to return to a healthy state.

The Road to Restoration Is Long

A lot needs to be done about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and even with concerted efforts, it will probably take centuries to rid the ocean of most of the plastic currently swirling around in it. Still, that doesn't mean that every effort isn't worthwhile.

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Photo Courtesy: Muntaka Chasant/Wikimedia Commons

The ordinary, everyday individual has a lot of power over what ends up in the world’s oceans, and there are plenty of ways to lessen your contribution to ocean pollution. Ideas range from smarter purchasing habits to helping on clean-up projects related to beaches or the garbage patches themselves.

Education Is Critical

Educating our youth about proper waste management methods, recycling practices and conservation projects is crucial to ensuring a cleaner, healthier ocean in the future. Most public schools make an effort to inform their students about environmental hazards, dangers and human-caused problems.

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Photo Courtesy: woodleywonderworks/Wikimedia Commons

However, taking extra time to discuss the realities of ocean pollution and the Great Pacific Garbage Patch with your kids is the best and most effective way of imparting the importance of environmental care to the next generation. Without this awareness, the patch may become a full-fledged continent within the next several decades. No one wants that!

Coastal Clean-Ups Are a Fantastic First Step

Whether you volunteer with friends or clean solo, beach clean-up is a great way to get some sun during an afternoon at the beach. Not only will you be making a positive impact on the environment, but you can also catch a tan! Several organized beach clean-ups take place throughout the year in coastal areas, and you can easily sign up to help.

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Photo Courtesy: U.S. Embassy Jerusalem/Flickr

If groups aren't your thing, don't feel weird about making a playlist, putting your headphones on and spending an afternoon cleaning the coastline in time to your favorite tunes. It's sure to be a peaceful, zen experience that you can look back on fondly with pride.

Ocean Clean-Ups Are Even Better

While coastal clean-ups are a great way to handle the garbage patch's stragglers and wayward pieces, sailing out to the massive floating mass of trash and bagging up sections of it is even better. Several groups have practiced this method of trash removal for many years and have barely made a dent, but it adds up to less trash in the water, even if it seems futile.

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Photo Courtesy: National Marine Sanctuaries/Wikimedia Commons

It would take hundreds of gigantic shipping vessels, maybe even a few dozen cruise liners, and several thousand volunteers to make an immediate and sizable dent in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Imagine what an amazing Earth Day treat it would be if it ever happened.

New Regulations Can Help Reduce Waste

New laws and international regulations regarding ocean dumping could significantly reduce plastic pollution. Stricter fishing industry regulations could also help minimize the amount of trawling, net escapes and equipment pollution that occurs annually. Harsher dumping fines and penalties could reduce vast amounts of public waste.

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Photo Courtesy: Gerry & Bonni/Flickr

Looking at it from the positive side, rewarding companies and manufacturers that utilize biodegradable, non-polluting options could encourage new businesses to incorporate healthier, greener practices. By suggesting, supporting and helping implement these types of laws, humans could turn over a new leaf and pave the way to a cleaner ocean.

Using Fewer Plastic Products Helps

Choosing glass, cloth and natural materials over plastic helps reduce the total amount of plastic that is produced and consumed every year. Tons of options are available when it comes to cleaning products, foods, containers and even furniture materials. Checking to make sure your potential purchase is eco-friendly is a great first step.

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Photo Courtesy: Dave O/Flickr

Biodegradable packaging, recyclable components and non-PET plastics are exceptional features to look for in any product. You may be surprised to find that nearly everything you could ever need has an environmentally-friendly model, option or alternative available.

Recycling Plastic Reduces Pollution

Recycling your plastic items and buying multi-use plastic products are other fantastic ways you can help shrink the ocean garbage patches. Many supermarkets are now offering bulk options for dry goods, such as beans, pasta and grains. If you take your own reusable container to the store, you can avoid buying items wrapped in plastic.

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Photo Courtesy: JMacPherson/Flickr

Installing an at-home water filtration system can save you thousands of dollars on bottled water and massively reduce the amount of single-use plastic you generate. Get creative with your beverages and meals to see how much plastic you can avoid.

The Crisis Is a Global Challenge

Conquering the Great Pacific Garbage Patch isn't as simple as sailing out to it and cleaning it up in a day — or even a year. To truly get rid of the unsightly and dangerous floating trash heaps, the world must work together in nearly perfect harmony.

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Photo Courtesy: Oregon State University/Flickr

Taking better care of the environment is a worldwide concern and issue, making ocean health a global challenge that none of us can afford to ignore. If the global community unites to protect and conserve our world, humankind is sure to reap the benefits of a well-connected, empathetic and caring society.

Three Giant Patches Must Be Handled

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is just one of three massive floating landfills that dot the oceans around the world. It receives the most attention because it affects the most first-world countries and is the largest of all the patches. However, concentrating on only one is just as bad as ignoring them all.

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Photo Courtesy: BRIGHT SIDE/YouTube

To keep these garbage-ridden floating continents from expanding indefinitely, the entire world must come together to agree on policies and practices that prevent human trash, consumer plastics and industrial fishing gear from spilling into the open ocean. That's the only way to fight these three growing giants!

Full Restoration Could Take Centuries

If we all began cleaning up the ocean garbage patches today, it would still take several hundred years for the ocean to return to its pre-contaminated state. Considering population growth and the strength of ocean-related industries, it seems likely that our oceans may remain somewhat polluted for a millennium or more, despite our increasing efforts.

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Photo Courtesy: sergeitokmakov/Pixabay

However, with knowledge comes power, and with power comes great responsibility — for all you Spider-Man fans. The more people who understand their personal contributions to the ocean's trash patches, the more power they will have to limit those contributions and make some positive global changes that have an impact.

Imagine the Benefits of a Plastic-Free Ocean

While garbage isn't the only human threat to the health of the world's oceans, it is a significant one. Without trash polluting our oceans, phytoplankton would flourish, filling the world with an abundance of lung-friendly oxygen. Also, our rainwater would be cleaner, purer and free of microplastic particles.

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Photo Courtesy: Igor Krivokon/Flickr

The animals that call the ocean home would no longer suffer short lives spent trapped in plastic waste or eating toxic trash. We could ensure that the fish we consume, the waters we sail and the beaches we sunbathe on are in pristine, healthy condition.

The World Needs Modern Solutions to Modern Problems

Plastic is a relatively modern creation. As a result, it requires an innovative solution. Many companies are choosing environmentally friendly options for their products, including biodegradable packaging and recycled paper and plastic components. These alternatives reduce the amount of new plastic that is created, consequently reducing the amount of plastic that ends up in the ocean.

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Photo Courtesy: Stacie/Flickr

Smarter drain filtration systems, recycling initiatives and public programs also contribute to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch's annual shrinkage. Many governments are taking action by banning single-use plastic items, Styrofoam containers and packaging, and plastic straws and utensils.

Shrinking Garbage Islands Mean Happier Oceans

The faster the world’s garbage islands shrink, the happier the oceans will be! As the species responsible for the world, we have started to work harder to conserve our natural spaces and environments and restore and repair the ones we've already damaged. By continuing this work for many generations to come, we can ensure that our descendants get to enjoy a successful and fruitful future here on Earth.

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Photo Courtesy: Steve Jurvetson/Flickr

After all, no one wants to book a vacation to a stinking, swirling pile of trash or gaze out at an endless mountain of plastic debris when they visit the beach. Fortunately, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is completely recyclable!