|Plastic waste are now a problem for communities on the coastline and the number of plastics on sea can be larger than those on the land / Photo by: Richard Whitcombe via 123RF|
Plastic has become a huge pile of trash on land. And beyond the shores, just out of view, there are stretches of plastic in our oceans that would give trash dumps on land a run for their money.
A Collection of Garbage
The Earth’s oceans have a number of gyres, which are currents that circulate the world’s waters and create massive but slow-moving whirlpools where various objects can end up if they can’t be degraded by the ocean—things like plastics. Many scientists already predicted that a great collection of accumulated marine debris, which was dubbed as the Great Pacific garbage patch, would collect somewhere in the Pacific Ocean as early as 1988. The patch was first discovered in 1997 by Charles Moore, who was sailing back to California after a yachting competition. He described it as a stretch of floating plastic debris. It is also often called the Pacific trash vortex.
The prominent image that most people would have upon hearing about the garbage patch floating in the ocean would be some sort of mountainous plastic island. In reality, however, the patch is made up of numerous plastic particles that have been broken down into tinier and tinier pieces given that they don’t degrade. These aren’t actually easily visible, especially considering they float or just below the water’s surface, and not even aircraft or satellites can easily detect the structure. What scientists know about its possible size is taken from estimates of samples. It was determined that it could be about 700 thousand square kilometers, the size of Texas, to as large as twice the size of the United States, about 15 million square kilometers, as stated by Visualeyed.com.
More Than Meets the Eye
The garbage patch is not one distinct entity, but is composed of the debris found in the West Coast of North America, called the Western Garbage Patch, and the debris close to Japan, the Eastern Garbage Patch. These two areas are linked through the North Pacific Subtropical Convergence Zone. It acts as a sort of highway between the two as warm South Pacific water meets the Arctic’s cooler currents.
|There are three patches of garbage in the parts of the Pacific Ocean / Photo by: aryfahmed via 123RF|
Aside from what is surmised to be found at the surface or close to it, it’s speculated that the seafloor underneath the garbage patch is actually a heap of underwater trash. Researchers found that about 70% of the debris in the ocean actually sinks down to the ocean floor, according to National Geographic.
However, the garbage patch in the North Pacific isn’t the only one. An estimated 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic that weigh 269 thousand tons in total is thought to be found all over the ocean. There are also believed to be five other large congregations of plastic trash and particles. Aside from the North Pacific, they can also be found in the Mediterranean, the Indian Ocean, the South Pacific, and the North and South Atlantic. This information was gathered from the 5 gyres institute throughout 24 expeditions.
The Effect on Wildlife and the Environment
So what does this mean for our environment? There are several well-documented instances of the impact of plastic pollution on different kinds of marine wildlife. Oftentimes they end up ingesting the tinier pieces of plastic or they get entangled in the larger pieces. Much of this plastic, while already toxic, often absorb organic pollutants that greatly endanger the health of large marine fauna and the smaller organisms of the food chain.
An estimate of 1 million seabirds and 100 thousand mammals and turtles die from consuming plastic each year. It was discovered that many dead seabirds in the northwest coast of the United States had plastic in their stomachs, suggesting that the extent of pollution was more widespread than initially thought. Small plastics such as Styrofoam, candy wrappers, and twine were found undigested within them, at an average of 35 pieces per bird.
|There are several well-documented instances of the impact of plastic pollution on different kinds of marine wildlife / Photo by: kwangmoo via 123RF|
Aside from affecting the wildlife and their food chain, plastics can absorb and leak out harmful pollutants into the sea. Plastics are broken down through photodegradation, and the more they do so, the more the colorants and chemicals seep out of and mix with the surrounding water. Some of the substances, such as bisphenol A (BPA), have been known to cause health and environmental problems.
Currently, mankind only recovers about 5% to 10% of plastics produced, and the amount of plastic continues to grow considering that most plastic products, such as cups, straws, and packaging, are disposable or single-use only. Many countries, such as China, Indonesia, and the Philippines, continue to contribute to the amount of plastic waste in the seas. Irresponsible waste management and collection also ends up bringing trash floating in rivers or blown by the wind into the ocean.
Proper waste management and recycling are one of the keys to preventing the growth of the garbage patches. If nothing is done, we may be swimming or sailing in plastic instead of clear, pristine waters.