The Great Pacific Garbage Patch

Do you remember that scene in Labyrinth when Sarah falls gracefully into a giant dump of trash (and also, incidentally, onto Junk Lady's back)? It's like that. Only....bigger. Like a lot. Oh and on water.


the GPGP

In 1997, a yachtsman named Charles Moore was on his way home east-bound to Los Angeles when his yacht came across something; miles and miles (and miles) of floating trash. Due to winds and currents, garbage comes together to form five islands, or patches, across various regions of the sea. The largest one, the one Charles Moore discovered, is called The Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP) and is 1.6 million square kilometers, which is twice the size of Texas or three times the size of France. Eight percent of it is made up of microplastics (small, photodegraded plastic or small beads of plastic commonly found in beauty products), 46 percent of it are fishing nets, and the rest are various other fishing gear and plastics. 

The GPGP weighs 80,000 tons and consists of 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic. Now, let's not forget that roughly 100,000 marine animals are strangled, suffocated, or injured by plastic every single year. And 74% of the diets of sea turtles that migrate through here, consist of plastic (if they don't get strangled first by all the fishing nets) and Hawaiian  Laysan albatross chicks' diets consist of 45% of GPGP plastic (and over 90% seabirds worldwide are host to plastics in their bodies). Furthermore, about 84% of the plastics found in the GPGP contain at least one PBT (Persistant Bio-accumulative Toxin). But what does not directly come into contact with a marine animal, gets broken down over time by the exposure of the sun into smaller and smaller pieces known as photodegrading. See, the majority of plastic is made from propylene that are linked together in chains of monomers known as polypropylene. Because polypropylene is so new to Nature, bacteria does not recognize it as a food source and thus, it doesn't biodegrade. But plastic does break down from light, albeit it is never officially gone; it just gets so small eventually that it eventually sinks to the ocean floor where scavengers and other small fish consume it. This then is stored into their bodily tissue and builds up in their system until they are consumed by a predator that adds it into their tissue, along with all of its other plastic particles from previous prey. And then that predator is consumed by a larger fish of the sea and this eventually compounds up the food chain, known as bioaccumulation, until it either suffocates some larger marine animal or seabird, or ends up in our own bodies from consuming seafood. Ironic.

how it formed

The most harmful misnomer of how the GPGP formed was that it all originated from coastal populations. True, there is a direct source for trash to enter the oceans from these regions, and hurricanes and tsunamis do add quite a bit of it themselves, but up to 2.41 million tons of plastic enter the ocean every year from rivers due to buoyancy. And rivers are riddled throughout the country and so thus, all humans are responsible for the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and the destruction it ensues to the sea and to ourselves. 

These plastics did not appear just recently, however; they have been slowly accumulating over decades. Some of the larger plastic pieces that are more complex and difficult to photodegrade, were found to be made in the mid-1970's. As our population grows and the dependency on plastics continue to rise, so too will the size of the GPGP and the four other oceanic garbage patches located throughout the world. Also, as global warming continues, more and more frequent extreme storms will occur and add their contributions of vast amounts of plastic trash, as well.

artwork done by  Glenn Smith

artwork done by Glenn Smith

what is being done

So much time and efforts have been made since the 90's on trying to figure out how to clean up all this plastic without harming any of the marine beings in the area. Then suddenly a teenager in the Netherlands (now in his mid-20's) had a brilliant idea, dropped out of college, started a non-profit and raised $2 million in a crowdfunding campaign. He has also received over $31.5 million in donations from sponsors such as: Salesforce chief executive Marc Benioff, philanthropist Peter Thiel, Julius Baer Foundation, and Royal DSM, despite the majority of scientists' skepticism. The boy behind this idea and strategy is Boyan Slat.

Boyan's non-profit, known as Ocean Cleanup, is installing 60 giant, tubular floating scoops that each span a mile from end to end. Fish and mammals are able to escape these screened scoops by passing underneath, and collection vessels will come to collect the debris from the scoops every six to eight weeks and will transport the waste to various recycling facilities once sorted. The research to begin this project took several large vessels and an airplane to be able to asses the contents that make the trash island (which is also a misnomer as it's not so much a walkable island, as it is a tangled mess of plastic and fishing nets, as well as huge amounts of tiny, photodegraded pieces). Every single piece of plastic that was collected by these research vessels were weighed, categorized, and catalogued by unpaid interns, in order to understand what it is they're up against. The project itself launches mid-2018 from the San Fransisco Bay.