The Great Pacific Garbage Island Isn’t What You Think
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.