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Great Pacific Garbage Patch
By Ahnika LeRoy, Contributor

"It seemed unbelievable, but I never found a clear spot. In the week it took to cross the subtropical high [between Hawaii and the continental U.S.], no matter what time of day I looked, plastic debris was floating everywhere: bottles, bottle caps, wrappers, fragments.”

Great Pacific Garbage Patch

Since Captain Charles Moore’s discovery of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in 1997, nonprofits and governmental organizations have uncovered startling information about this massive dump of floating trash. Comprised of two smaller patches, one near California, and the other off Japan’s shore, the garbage patch stretches in a band across the Pacific Ocean.

Twice as big as the state of Texas, garbage accumulates because much of it is not biodegradeable. An astonishing “80% of the floating debris in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch comes from land-based activities in North America and Asia.” Often, the result in people failing to dispose of non-biodegradable items like fishing gear, shoes, and bottles. In addition to regular plastics, the patch is riddled with microplastics. These tiny bits of plastic make much of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch water look like a cloudy soup.

Oceanographers and ecologists recently discovered that about 70% of marine debris sinks to the bottom of the ocean. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch holds over 700 million tons of trash, in the top nine feet of water. Recent discoveries from oceanographers and ecologists suggest approximately 70% of marine debris sink, which means the garbage patch zone may well hold over 2.1 billion tons of trash.

With so much plastic trash in our oceans, health risks to both marine life and people are increased. Plastics break down through photodegradation, in which photons alter or break down an item’s chemical structure. This process releases chemicals, such as bisphenol-A (BPA), which has been shown to interfere with organ development, cognitive function and mood. Plastics can also absorb pollutants like PCBs, from the seawater. These chemicals can then enter the food chain when the plastics are consumed by marine life, and enter people when we consume seafood.

In addition to the microscopic chemical hazards, the trash soup takes a toll on marine life. If fish, turtles and whales eat plastic objects, it can sicken or kill them. Over one-third of fish sampled by Aglalita , a nonprofit started by Charles Moore, had eaten polluted plastic fragments. One 2.5 inch fish had 84 pieces of plastic in its tiny digestive tract. Ocean animals are also killed by dangerous plastic waste that entangles or traps them, often suffocating them underwater.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is not the only sea trash patch but it is the biggest. Other areas of the world are developing smaller patches just like the one in the Pacific, and some of these are in more populated areas. The Atlantic and Indian Oceans both have trash patches. Even smaller bodies of water, such as the North Sea are seeing considerable trash congregation. Due to greater proximity to people, some smaller patches may pose a greater threat than the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

These patches will not dissipate by themselves. In a 2010 report, Trash Travels estimated that plastic bags can take 20 years to decompose, plastic bottles take 450 years, and fishing nets require 600 years. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is not in any nations’ coastal waters so no nation will take responsibility or provide funding to clean it up.  The National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration’s Marine Debris Program has estimated that it would take 67 ships and one year to clean up less than one percent of the garbage patch.

However, more innovative practices and new technologies can drastically lower the time and resources required to clean it up. Nineteen-year-old Boyan Slat has designed a stingray-shaped trash collection vessel that navigates using ocean currents. It is estimated to be able to clean the entire north pacific garbage patch within five years.

His concept has won recognition from groups such as the Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure and the Environment. It is estimated the project would be profitable, and all plastics from the Great Pacific Garbage patch could be worth more than $500 million.

Scientists agree that reducing our use of plastics and increasing use of biodegradable products will help to produce the desired change. Thankfully, Biodegradable product demand for North America, Europe, and Asia is predicted to rise to nearly 525,000 metric tons in 2017, representing an average annual growth rate of almost 15 percent over the 2012 level.

Recycling plastic is another great way to help. Currently, only 7% of the plastic in the U.S. is recycled, though it too is growing strongly: the percentage of people with access to plastic recycling in addition to bottles has doubled since 2008, and plastic bottling recycling has experienced a two-decade growth spurt.

Though there are environmental dangers present, and the development and growth of garbage patches worldwide is an extreme challenge, we are not without a solution. Thanks to increasing recycling, biodegradable product demand, and Boylan Slat’s invention, it is possible to slow the growth, and even begin to reduce the size of humanity’s largest unintentional dumping ground.

Creative Commons: “Great Pacific Garbage Patch, photo author Lindsey Hoshaw" by Duncan Kinney is licensed under CC BY 3.0

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Posted: July 22, 2015