The Great Pacific Garbage Patch Isn’t What You Think

By David NaarLast Updated Apr 22, 2021 1:44:27 AM ET
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Photo Courtesy: Johan Ordonez/AFP/Getty Images

Known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the Pacific trash vortex or simply as Garbage Island, there’s a massive, floating garbage dump swirling around in the Pacific. At more than 600,000 square miles in size, it’s growing ever larger, impacting the survival of wildlife and the health of the world’s shorelines in the process. However, the garbage patch is also raising public awareness about oceanwide pollution — in particular the danger of microplastics — which is perhaps the only remarkable thing about it.

The collection of debris is large enough to be an actual island — but it’s certainly not the far-flung vacation locale of our dreams. So, what are scientists doing to clean up this dangerous mess? Here's what you need to know about the unsettling environmental threat to our largest ocean.

What Exactly Is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch?

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. These vast swaths of trash occasionally converge, but they tend to separate and reform into three distinct patches over time. This phenomenon makes cleanup attempts extremely difficult.

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Photo Courtesy: NOAA/Wikimedia Commons

To compound the issue, about 14 billion pounds of trash are dumped into the ocean every year, and some of that detritus floats to the surface of the water and slowly degrades. Some trash is eaten by wildlife or washes ashore for people to dispose of all over again. Most of it fails to clump together with enough solid mass to form a stable, land-like surface.

Although there are many forms and sources of pollution, most of the trash currently floating in the Pacific Ocean is made of plastic. Up to 12 million tons of plastic are unceremoniously dumped into the world's oceans every year, and shipping containers carrying brand new plastic products sometimes fall into the water during rough weather as well. It takes some types of plastic nearly 450 years to decompose in water — with others taking much longer — and its impact on ocean life is long-lasting.

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What Does This Trash Do in the Ocean?

Different materials take varying lengths of time to break down in water. Paper only takes a little over a month, but plastic grocery bags take nearly 20 years. Even some completely organic substances can take decades to decompose, and material like fishing line can take 600 years or more.

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Photo Courtesy: Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP/Getty Images

One of the most dangerous aspects of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is that it causes microplastics to form. The large plastic containers and bottles that initially make their way to the Pacific Ocean current eventually degrade into tiny plastic beads and strands that are almost invisible to the naked eye. Marine animals can easily swallow, inhale or transport these microplastics.

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In the ocean, microplastics 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. Much of the tap water in the United States is inundated with this material, although new technologies are attempting to focus on keeping microplastics out of our drinking water.

How Is the Garbage Patch Affecting Wildlife — and Us?

The garbage patch itself affects marine life, and the trash within it also has far-reaching effects. Just like the debris on the swirling sides of a hurricane, the garbage that ends up on the outside of the rotating 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: NurPhoto/Getty Images

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 danger that plastics, fishing gear and assorted other 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.

Microplastics can leach into water numerous chemicals that cause a variety of harmful health effects to marine life and to us. When those chemicals enter our drinking water, long-term consumption of them can lead to conditions like cancer, reproductive issues and weakened immune systems. Research into the full effects of these particles on animals that call the ocean home is ongoing, but scientists do know that microplastics can physically harm creatures that mistake the material for food.

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

How Can We Fix the Problem?

It goes without saying that the urgency of solving the Great Pacific Garbage Patch problem is growing by the day. But even with concerted efforts, it could 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: picture alliance/Getty Images

Everyday individuals have 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 making smarter purchasing habits — opting away from plastic whenever possible — to helping with cleanup projects related to beaches or the garbage patches themselves. Whether you volunteer with friends or clean solo, beach cleanups offer a great way to eliminate trash that harms wildlife on beaches and could potentially wash back into the ocean, heading once again for the patch. If you live near a coastal area — there’s also an Atlantic garbage patch that needs urgent attention — check with local organizations to see if they host any dedicated cleanup outings you can participate in to make a positive impact on the environment.

Changing a few of your regular habits can help you make an impact, too, by keeping garbage out of the ocean in the first place. In addition to limiting your use of disposable plastic items like straws, to-go cups and utensils, choose refillable water bottles and reusable grocery bags. Be sure to recycle any plastic you do end up needing to use, and cut the loops on items like soda packaging before disposing of them. You can also use economic incentives to make a difference by patronizing businesses that are more conscientious about using less plastic.

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Global Efforts Mean Global Improvements

While local coastal cleanups are a great way to handle some of the trash the garbage patch deposits, some organizations are taking things a step further by attempting cleanups at the Great Pacific Garbage Patch itself. One Dutch inventor has been working on solving this problem since 2013, and his remediation efforts are finally paying off. Boyan Slat, creator of a project called The Ocean Cleanup, invented a system that utilizes a floating barrier and fine mesh screen to collect garbage patch trash. It’s a large, self-contained device that operates passively, using the energy of ocean currents that push garbage onto the net to capture it.

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Photo Courtesy: Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images

As technology continues to improve and become more innovative, cleanup efforts directed at the ocean's trash gyres will likely follow suit. This could result in more effective solutions that provide quicker results, which could significantly reduce the amount of time expected for the ocean to reach a healthier state. 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 the vast amounts of public waste that end up in the ocean.

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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 these dangerous floating trash masses, the world must work together to clean up the ocean in a lasting way and keep trash from getting to our waters in the first place. Taking better care of the environment is a worldwide concern, making ocean health a global challenge that none of us can afford to ignore. If the global community unites to protect and conserve our environment, we — and the creatures we share this planet with — are sure to reap the benefits.