Backyard Talk

Great Pacific Garbage Patch

By Michelle Atkin

The world’s largest landfill is actually floating in the middle of the North Pacific Ocean. It contains three million tons of plastic, in addition to other marine debris, and is often referred to as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP). This drifting ocean litter or gyre is one of five major global garbage patches and was discovered in 1997 by Charles Moore, a California volunteer environmentalist and sailor who was so concerned he founded the Algalita Marine Research Foundation.

The size of this trash cluster is widely debated because it is difficult to measure as it shifts with the currents. While some say it is the size of France, others say it is twice the size of Texas, but it is a problem that is not going away.

Every year there are 280 million tons of plastic produced around the world, and 63 pounds of plastic packaging for each person ends up in landfills annually while only nine percent of it is recycled in the United States. Unfortunately, because plastic is not biodegradable, all of the fragments of plastic that have ever been produced still exist, excluding the small volume that has been incinerated, which releases toxic chemicals.

While water bottles and plastic bags contribute to the greatest percentage of plastic litter, a few of the many other items that can be found on the ocean’s floor or surface are buttons, fishing line, toys, cigarette lighters, PVC pipe or fragments, golf tees, gloves and markers. Over time, the sun, wind and waves can break down the plastic into millimeter sized flecks which creates a mess that is impossible to clean up. Scientists have found six times more plastic than plankton in GPGP ocean water samples, and it makes its way into the stomachs of birds, fish, whales and other marine life, which may eventually end up on our plates, along with the Bisphenol A (BPA) and other toxic chemicals found in some plastic.

The estimated 46,000 pieces of plastic per square kilometer in the world’s oceans kill millions of seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals each year from ingestion or entanglement. Half of the Earth’s wetlands have been destroyed and beaches like Kamilo Beach in Hawaii consist of more plastic particles than sand particles in the top twelve inches of the beach.

As stated by National Geographic, “because the GPGP is so far from any country’s coastline, no nation will take responsibility or provide the funding to clean it up,” but even if a net could collect the trash “the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration’s Marine Debris Program has estimated that it would take 67 ships one year to clean up less than one percent of the North Pacific Ocean.”

The enormity of the ocean and this problem is difficult to grasp because like GPGP reporter Richard Grant wrote, “even if plastic production halted tomorrow, the planet would be dealing with its environmental consequences for thousands of years, and on the bottom of the oceans, where an estimated 70 percent of marine plastic debris ends up, for tens of thousands of years. It may form a layer in the geological record of the planet.”

Despite the damage that has already been done, the focus should be placed on reducing our footprint in the future. We need to work together and individually by volunteering to clean-up streams, rivers, lakes and beaches, so that we can limit the garbage that makes it into the ocean. We should also support environmental organizations and embrace environmental initiatives, reduce plastic use and recycle.