The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is Growing

Plastic from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch
Plastic litter sampling from Great Pacific Garbage Patch -- courtesy of The Telegraph

The so-called Great Pacific Garbage Patch, sometimes called the Pacific Trash Vortex, is an area of the Pacific Ocean west of California that is home to millions upon millions pieces of plastic floating in the upper column of the open ocean. The plastic trash isn’t biodegradable, so it’s suspended in a circular ocean current known as the North Pacific Gyre. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is one of the most alarming examples of irresponsible waste removal in the world.

How Big is the Problem?

The Patch is quite expansive, although estimates vary significantly. Some early estimates stated the Garbage Patch covered an area approximately the size of continental United States. However, more recent estimates state the most concentrated area of the Patch is likely the size of Texas. The North Pacific Gyre current stretches from California to Japan. It’s the largest ecosystem on Earth.

north pacific gyre

Effects on Wildlife and Humans

The Patch has a drastic effect on wildlife in the area, particularly sea turtles and birds. Since most of the plastic debris is actually about the size of a fingernail or smaller, many fish in the area mistake it for food. According to Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, about nine percent of fish sampled in the area had plastic in their stomachs.

The tiny pieces of plastic contain potential toxic chemicals, such as PCBs and bisphenol A. Consuming these toxic chemicals not only harms the fish and other sea creatures, but it also affects humans when we eat the infected fish. It’s a vicious cycle.

Source of the Problem

The discarded plastic that litters the North Pacific comes from both land sources and boats. Some estimates say that 80 percent of the litter comes from land sources while the remaining 20 percent of the plastic waste originates from boats navigating the North Pacific. In reality, the main source of the plastic doesn’t matter at this point – the point is that the problem needs to be addressed.

The Garbage Patch has reached a point where it would be nearly impossible to clean it up. According to Scripps, the amount of plastic debris floating in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch has increased 100-foldover the past 40 years.


courtesy of Mario Aguilera of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography

As previously stated, cleaning up the debris would require quite a massive effort unlike any environmental cleanup effort ever seen. However, every little bit helps. So, conservation groups, marine biologists, and government entities will continue to do their best in cleaning up the existing debris. The key to getting control of the problem, however, is prevention. What can you do to help?

There are two easy ways to start helping:

  1. Purchase plastic materials responsibly. Avoid buying plastics whenever possible. Look for products that use special biodegradable plastics when at the grocery store.
  2. Recycle any plastic containers or bags you do use. Never-ever-ever... throw plastic containers or bags in area waterways, illegal dumping sites or woodland areas. At the very least, plastic that makes its way to landfills will be properly disposed of by the municipal waste system.

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