Published: July 24, 2017

    What is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch?

    We all are aware of the damage that plastics and debris in the ocean are causing, both for marine ecosystems and for the longevity of the planet in general. But how can a casual observer quantify, or contextualize, the scope of waste and debris present in our great oceans?

    Enter the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, also known dramatically as the Pacific Trash Vortex. Defining the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is tricky – it’s not a floating landmass of trash in the ocean, but it is a country-sized area of concentrated plastic debris located in the North Pacific Gyre (for those unaware, a gyre is a huge system of circulating currents in the ocean).

    People on either side of the Pacific Ocean throw away debris into the ocean every day of the year, and much of the small plastic debris is deposited in this sprawling area based on the way the winds and the currents direct their paths in the ocean.

    The Great Pacific Garbage Patch was discovered approximately 30 years ago and has only been increasing in size and density since then. So what, exactly, does the patch of garbage contain? And how big is it?

    According to Annalee Newitz, who interviewed marine biologist Miriam Goldstein for io9 about the Pacific Trash Vortex, millions of small and microscopic plastic are concentrated in an area exceeding 5000 square kilometers in size. The concentration of plastic within the “patch” is .4 pieces per cubic meter.

    Occasionally there are larger pieces of debris, like a tire or a buoy, but most of the plastic is smaller than a fingernail. This means that the high concentration of plastic cannot be detected with tools like satellite photography.

    How is the plastic affecting the diverse ocean wildlife? In a variety of ways. Clearly, one of the most direct results of plastic waste in the ocean is the death of fish and bird species that eat plastic and can choke on it.

    However, as Goldstein points out in her interview, it is difficult to collect data to determine what percentage of wildlife is being negatively harmed by plastics, simply because scientists can’t “go around killing baby albatrosses to examine their stomach contents” to find out if certain animals can survive with an increased plastic diet.

    Certain animals are thriving in the Pacific Ocean due to the increase in plastic debris, but this isn’t necessarily good news. Hard surfaces like plastic allow invasive species to move further and further into open water where they previously could not reside.

    These types of species, like water skaters and small crabs, can hitch a ride with plastic debris and live in the ocean where they didn’t dwell in decades past, which is throwing the ocean ecosystems they enter off balance. In addition, species like bryozoans and barnacles can cause major damage to ship hulls in addition to the damage they cause the ecosystems where they invade.

    As a concerned citizen, your first step to aid scientists in limiting the growth of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is to stop consuming products that generate plastic waste. Don’t buy body washes or scrubs that contain microbeads. Stop purchasing plastic bottles of water, and instead use a 2-stage countertop drinking filter and refillable bottles that you can take with you on the go. If we work together we can help make the ocean a cleaner, safer place.