Seas of Trash – The Great Pacific Garbage Patch

A sampling of the types of plastic trash scattered around the oceans. One of the challenges of plastic debris is that it is continuously breaking down into smaller pieces, leaching toxic chemicals to ocean and making large-scale clean-ups very difficult.

A sampling of the types of plastic trash scattered around the oceans. One of the challenges of plastic debris is that it is continuously breaking down into smaller pieces, leaching toxic chemicals to ocean and making large-scale clean-ups very difficult (Image courtesy of NOAA’s Marine Debris Program).

One of the first questions people ask me when they hear that I’m working with marine debris (“ocean trash”) is What’s up with that giant garbage patch in the middle of the Pacific? The question is understandable, given the evocative name – the Great Pacific Garbage Patch – coined for the floating debris congregating in the eastern North Pacific Ocean. Descriptions such as “an island of garbage the size of Texas” convey the idea of a giant conglomeration of plastic bottles, cast-off fishing nets, tennis shoes, food wrappers and other worthless treasures, with a couple of palm trees rooted on top.

The truth is actually (and unfortunately) rather different. Instead of a clump of trash sitting on the ocean surface, easily identifiable and perhaps even scoopable and removable, the trash in the North Pacific often floats slightly below the ocean surface in miniscule pieces that are constantly breaking down into even smaller bits (You may have heard of “nurdles”, the term scientists use to describe the tiny bits of plastic that have broken down from larger plastic sources, or have been released directly from products such as face wash cleansing beads). Although we don’t know the exact extent of plastic in the world’s oceans, the debris doesn’t sit as a separate entity from the surrounding water – it has made its way into the very ecosystem.There’s no “one-scoop-cleans-all” for ocean trash.

This map shows the locations of two “Garbage Patches” in the North Pacific Ocean, as well as an emerging confluence of debris along the Subtropical Convergence Zone. Although ocean debris is described as “an island of trash the size of Texas”, the problem is actually much more dispersed throughout the North Pacific (image courtesy of the NOAA Marine Debris “Garbage Patches” poster)

This map shows the locations of two “Garbage Patches” in the North Pacific Ocean, as well as an emerging confluence of debris along the Subtropical Convergence Zone. Although ocean debris is described as “an island of trash the size of Texas”, the problem is actually much more dispersed throughout the North Pacific (image courtesy of NOAA’s Marine Debris “Garbage Patches” poster)

An additional caveat is that there are actually multiple “Garbage Patches” in the North Pacific. While the congregation in the Eastern North Pacific is probably the most well-known marine debris field to people in the U.S., there are at least two other congregations, one in the Western North Pacific off the coast of Japan, and another along the Subtropical Convergence Zone (STCZ). The STCZ, a band of the North Pacific at approximately 35ºN latitude, produces high chlorophyll concentrations, making it a popular feeding and migration track for marine life, and increasing the risk of plastic ingestion as animals skim along.

So why should we care about whether plastics are flowing into the oceans? Most people I talk to agree that we can no longer treat our oceans as black-hole dumping grounds that will magically absorb our waste. Among other things, plastics never fully degrade and disappear (that’s the whole point – the material was developed to be light but hardy). As plastics swirl their way into the oceans, fish, birds, turtles and whales ingest them, suffering serious health problems and often death. But in addition to bringing harm to marine life through ingestion, plastic breakdown in the ocean may be leaching dangerous chemicals back into the marine environment, as this recent LA Times article on the “Plastisphere” reports.

Hundreds of feet of abandoned fishing net washed up on the Pacific side of Baja California in July 2007. Abandoned fishing nets are often called “ghost nets” because after they have broken loose from fishing boats, they continue to wander the ocean, trapping and killing marine organisms as unintentional bycatch.

Hundreds of feet of abandoned fishing net washed up on the Pacific side of Baja California in July 2007. Abandoned fishing nets are often called “ghost nets” because after they have broken loose from fishing boats, they continue to wander the ocean, trapping and killing marine organisms as unintentional bycatch.

Cleaning up the oceans is an enormous challenge. Monitoring beaches for trash is an important step, and is an area where I am working to tie in oceanographic data, to help managers determine how water flow may move trash along the shore. The more we can catch debris on the beach (or better yet, before it reaches the beach), the less waste we will have to try to sift out of the oceans later. But all of us who work with marine debris acknowledge that trash monitoring and cleanup isn’t the long-term solution.

In order to reduce debris going into the oceans, we must reduce our single-use consumption in the first place. Non-profit agencies (CA Coastal Conservancy, Heal the Bay and 5 Gyres, to name a few in California) and West Coast state governors are working together and making hopeful strides toward reducing plastic production, starting with the promise of a California state-wide plastic bag ban. It all comes back to on-the-ground actions by consumers, though, especially through reducing plastic use in the first place.

So invest in a safe reusable water bottle, coffee mug and grocery bags, and make a conscious effort to bring them with you wherever you go. Soon you won’t think of leaving the house without them! Support local and state-wide movements to ban plastic bags, and speak up in your local stores about reducing excessive plastic wrapping.

And if you see trash lying around, pick it up. Even if it’s only a temporary solution, it’s a tangible step toward breaking the chain of plastics migrating to the sea.

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Thank you to the NOAA Marine Debris Program website for providing excellent information on the North Pacific Garbage Problem. For terrific information on the extent of garbage concentration areas in the North Pacific, see this excellent NOAA Marine Debris information sheet.