What is it?
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a growing collection of marine debris in the North Pacific Ocean. Marine debris is composed of man-made trash that ends up in the oceans and other large bodies of water. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, also known as the Pacific trash vortex, spans waters from the West Coast of North America to Japan.
These areas of spinning debris are linked together by the North Pacific Subtropical Convergence Zone, located a few hundred kilometers north of Hawaii. This convergence zone is where warm water from the South Pacific meets up with cooler water from the Arctic. The zone acts like a highway that moves debris, contributing to the patch.
How is it kept together?
The entire Great Pacific Garbage Patch is bounded by the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre. A gyre is a large system of swirling ocean currents. The area in the center of a gyre tends to be very calm and stable. The circular motion of the gyre draws debris into this stable center, where it becomes trapped. The amount of debris in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch accumulates because much of it is not biodegradable. Many plastics, for instance, do not wear down; they simply break into tinier and tinier pieces (microplastics).
For many people, the idea of a “garbage patch” creates an image of an island of trash floating on the ocean. In reality, these patches are entirely made up of tiny bits of plastic, called microplastics. Microplastics can’t always be seen by the naked eye. The microplastics of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch can simply make the water look like a cloudy soup. This soup is intermixed with larger items, such as fishing gear and shoes.
How much marine debris is there?
No one knows how much debris makes up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The North Pacific Subtropical Gyre is too large for scientists to trawl. In addition, not all of the trash floats on the surface. Denser debris can sink centimeters or even several meters beneath the surface, making the vortex’s area nearly impossible to measure.
Who does the garbage patch harm?
Marine debris can be very harmful to various types of marine life. Seals and other marine mammals are especially at risk. They can get entangled in abandoned plastic fishing nets, which are being discarded. Seals and other mammals often drown in these forgotten nets—a phenomenon known as “ghost fishing.”
Can we clean it up?
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is so far from any country’s coastline, so no nation will take responsibility or provide the funding to clean it up. It would “bankrupt any country” who began to try. Many individuals and international organizations, however, are dedicated to preventing the patch from growing. Scientists and explorers agree that limiting or eliminating our use of disposable plastics and increasing our use of biodegradable resources will be the best way to clean up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
Organizations such as the Plastic Pollution Coalition and the Plastic Oceans Foundation are using social media and direct action campaigns to support individuals, manufacturers, and businesses in their transition from toxic, disposable plastics to biodegradable or reusable materials.