The Great Pacific Garbage Patch
Imagine France covered in trash three times over. That’s how large the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is. This patch is an enormous assemblage of plastic waste, including microplastics and fishing wire, in the North Pacific Ocean. According to The Smithsonian Magazine, roughly 79,000 tons of plastic make up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The cause of this buildup is the North Pacific Gyre, which forces all the debris in the ocean to swirl into one spot. Almost all plastics are made up of materials coming from fossil fuels. The process of extracting and transporting those fuels then manufacturing plastic creates billions of tons of greenhouse gases, directly affecting the global climate crisis.
The effects the Great Pacific Garbage Patch has on the environment are growing exponentially. One tremendous concern is the safety of marine life. The World Wildlife Fund reports that “one million seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals are affected every year, as well as many other species. For example, turtles often mistake plastic bags for prey such as jellyfish. Abandoned fishing lines, fishing nets, and equipment can ensnare and drown dolphins, porpoises, and whales.” In addition to all that, the biggest environmental problem following the garbage patch is its effects on coral reefs. Coral reefs are essential, producing 55 percent of the Earth’s oxygen. With this trash build-up, phytoplankton that live inside the corals cannot obtain sufficient sunlight for survival. Without the reefs, the whole aquatic ecosystem collapses. Even if direct changes in phytoplankton communities are not visible, pollutants may accumulate in phytoplankton and be passed on to other trophic levels in a cascading manner, resulting in biomagnification of certain pollutants.
While bigger companies have taken up the initiative to clear out these hot spots of trash and debris, the pileup is far too great. With that said, there are things that we can do to take action and reduce the amount of waste entering our oceans. An obvious solution is to use less plastic or simply switch to recycled plastic. Substitutes for plastic, while sometimes not as durable, are way better for the environment as a whole, considering that it takes plastic on average 450 years to decompose. Another solution is to participate in local beach cleanups. Even though the trash on the sand might seem minimal, almost all of it will end up accumulating in large amounts in the ocean. Recycling correctly is also a small but crucial contribution that many Americans neglect. These short-term solutions allow major projects such as The Ocean Cleanup to create false coasts. By creating false coastlines, the effort aims to concentrate the plastic to better clean it up. This will additionally free up a clearer path for sunlight to reach the corals. As the first of its kind, The Ocean Cleanup’s idea is gaining a lot of traction and publicity. Sally Robertson of Azo Cleantech says, “With enough fleets of systems deployed in every ocean gyre and with the inflow from rivers reduced, it should be able to clean up 90 percent of all plastic ocean waste by 2040.” The results of this will be relatively immediate. There will be more fish in the oceans because of the increase in plankton living within the corals and greater, faster production of oxygen. Even with this new technology, nothing will change unless we all contribute to the cause. We can only fix this global problem at the hand of collective action.