An ocean region exists 1000 miles off the coast of California in the North Pacific Ocean. Before you start imagining an expanse of beautiful clear ocean water, let me share with you the name of this region. It’s known to us as the Great Pacific Trash Patch, or the Trash Vortex. This region is home to a gyre, which is a large system of ocean currents that are always rotating. Four prevailing ocean currents work together to create a convergence zone in this area. This convergence zone makes for one of the largest naturally occurring (as natural as a collection of trash can be) landfills on the planet.
This gyre has formed two distinct trash patches- known as the Eastern and Western Garbage Patches. These collectively make up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The Eastern Garbage Patch is located somewhere between Hawaii and California. The Western Garbage Patch is to the west of Hawaii and east of Japan. These swirling masses are connected by a convergence zone that is 6,000 miles long. This entire zone and the patches it connects are known for collecting massive amounts of trash.
Contrary to popular belief, the mass of floating trash is not exactly solid garbage. It mainly consists of millions upon millions of tiny, even microscopic pieces of plastic. Most of the pieces are less than an inch in diameter. Because the debris is so small in size, and many times suspended below the surface, it is not possible to photograph or even detect from the air. Therefore, it’s very hard to determine the size of the patch. Surveys of its size are taken based on sampling done with nets. Since there isn’t a standard between a “normal” and “elevated” concentration of trash, this is also difficult to pinpoint. That being said, some media reports estimate it at twice the size of the contiguous US. Others estimate it at twice the size of Hawaii. It’s evident that we aren’t going to get any clear answers on its size, but we can be assured that it’s big.
Plastic makes up about 90% of trash in the entire ocean. Each square mile of ocean is estimated to contain about 46,000 pieces of plastic. More than 200 billion pounds of plastic are produced worldwide per year- 10% ends up in the ocean. The majority of the trash sinks to the bottom, harming life on the oceans floor. The other approximately 30% floats, ending up in gyres and creating huge garbage patches. Obviously, this poses dangers to wildlife, our oceans, and the overall state of the planet.
Unfortunately, the solution is not so easy to pinpoint. Most all of the trash making up the patch is originating from land. Only about 20% or less is estimated to have been dumped off ships and oil platforms. Even if a clean up of the patch was initiated, this doesn’t solve the problem of preventing new trash from entering the ocean. In addition, the damage is on such a large scale that cleanup efforts would be astronomical in cost. Not only that, but traditional netting removal would kill wildlife as it removed trash.
If we want to stop things from getting worse, we must act now. Educating the public on proper disposal of all trash including plastic, and how to cut down on plastic use in general is our main opportunity to turn this situation around. Unless we stop the constant input of plastic trash into our oceans, any level of clean up isn’t going to help. Being that the majority of the worlds trash is made up of plastic, the most obvious solution would be for the world to find a plastic alternative. Because plastic doesn’t break down, it’s the worst kind of waste we could have in our oceans. If we can find an alternative to plastic that is biodegradable, we may see some relief.