Plastic pollution is one of the greatest threats to the health of ocean life. With the levels of production skyrocketing and lower levels of recycling, thousands of pounds of plastic end up in the ocean each year. Plastic pollution impacts all kinds of sea life, including sea turtles, whales and coral reefs. Scientists estimate that at least half of all sea turtles have eaten plastic in their lifetime. But imagine a line of plastic that, when strung together, would be long enough to wrap around the world three times. That is the length of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
According to National Geographic, The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a collection of marine debris in the North Pacific Ocean. Also known as the Pacific Trash Vortex, the collection of trash sits in the waters between the west coast of North America and Japan. According to Ocean Cleanup, the patch is estimated to be 600,000 square miles. Roughly twice the size of Texas and three times the size of France.
For many people, the idea of a “garbage patch” makes them think of a huge pile of trash floating freely in the ocean. However, according to National Geographic, most of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is actually made up of microplastics. Microplastics are tiny bits of plastics that often cannot be seen by the naked eye and are not picked up by satellite images. This is one of the reasons that plastic pollution in our ocean is such a big problem. The plastic doesn’t just go away, it breaks down into microplastics, which are just as damaging to the ocean and sea life as larger pieces of debris. According to Ocean Cleanup, microplastics make up approximately 94 percent of the total patch. Lately, researchers have been describing it as more of a “plastic soup” than a “patch.”
“A lot of people hear the word patch and they immediately think of almost like a blanket of trash that can easily be scooped up,” says Dianna Parker, a researcher for the NOAA Marine Debris Program. “But actually, these areas are always moving and changing with the currents, and it’s mostly these tiny plastics that you can’t immediately see with the naked eye.”
While a complete cleanup of the patch might be unrealistic, we may be able to clean 50 percent of it within five years. But if it is to make any significant impact, it is important that the cleanup is begun as soon as possible before the large debris starts to degrade. “We need to clean up as much as we can before everything degrades into microplastics,” says Laurent Lebreton, Head Researcher at The Ocean Cleanup and lead author of the recent study. However, this would require the full deployment of all of our resources. It would cost between $122 million and $489 million just to hire enough boats to clean up the patch for a year, according to an estimate made in 2012 from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
A large-scale cleanup would require some drastic measures in policy and planning levels with governments and corporations. While these are certainly things to look into, Lebreton also feels that prevention is an important piece of the puzzle, as well. Plastic pollution in the ocean is one of the main killers of sea life and brings a lot of harm to our oceans. It is possible to clean up the trash when it is in the ocean, but the best course of action is to keep it from ending up there in the first place. While we continue to work on cleaning out the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, it is important we also intercept these efforts with prevention efforts, such as cleaning trash out from rivers and streams when we see them. Doing this will help ensure our oceans remain clean and clear in the future.
Lindsey Gibbons can be contacted