The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is the largest accumulation of ocean plastic and waste in the world located between Hawaii and California.
It is estimated that approximately 8 million tonnes of plastic enter the oceans every year. Since more than half of that plastic is less dense than the water, it stays floating on the surface, moving along in the water, getting transported with the currents before finally accumulating in one of the patches. Once this plastic arrives at a patch, it most likely stays there until it (eventually) starts to break down from the sun, salt water and marine life into smaller pieces called microplastics. It never breaks down completely by the way and these microplastics are extremely difficult to remove and are often mistaken for food by marine animals.
There is a total of 5 different offshore plastic accumulation zones throughout the world but the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is by far the largest. It is estimated that the surface area of the Patch is 1.6 million square kilometres, which is 2x the size of Texas and 3x the size of France!
It is also estimated that there are over 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic in the Patch weighing over 80,000 tonnes which is equivalent to the weight of 500 Jumbo Jets!
Experts have been monitoring and measuring the plastic in the patch since the 1970’s and the calculations from past years show that the concentration of microplastic has increased exponentially.
So, what are the impacts?
The impacts of this Garbage Patch are massive. Not only does it negatively impact the safety and health of marine life but there are also health and economic implications for us as well.
First off, due to the size and color of the plastics floating in the ocean, many marine animals will confuse it for food causing malnutrition, disease or even death through toxins and suffocation. 84% of the plastics found and tested in the Patch contain toxic chemicals. The discarded plastic fishing nets also pose deadly entanglement risks, often leading to death for marine animals and currently Fishing Nets make up approximately 46% of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch mass.
Floating at the surface of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is 180x more plastic than marine life so animals that are migrating or inhabiting the area are most likely consuming plastic from the Patch. An alarming example of this is the sea turtle. Tests done on turtles living around the Patch show that up to 74% of their diet is composed of plastic.
For humans, there are impacts to both our food chain and our economy as plastic pollution costs approximately 13 Billion dollars per year.
As mentioned previously, most of the plastics floating in the ocean contain chemicals and toxins (84% actually), which not only poses a threat to the animals consuming them but also to the humans that may consume the marine animals later on.
As for the economic impacts, the astronomical costs associated with marine plastics stem mostly from impacts on tourism, fisheries and governmental cleanups but the number quoted above doesn’t even include the costs of human healthcare that is likely required when these toxins are ingested.
What can we do?
You may be thinking to yourself that you are just one person, how could you possibly make an impact when the problem is this big? The answer to that though is, A LOT! Easy things, small things that will add up over time. The fact is, if we all do our part no matter how small, together we can make a huge difference. Here are several things you can do, starting as early as today:
1. Switch to plastic free, reusable products.
- Bring your own reusable shopping bags and produce bags to the market
- Use a reusable coffee cup and water bottle
- Carry a set of reusable cutlery and a stainless steel straw so when you’re out and are offered plastic versions of these items, you can opt out
- Choose products that come in glass containers that you can reuse, re-fill or recycle
- Look for clothing that is made from natural fibers instead of synthetics that contain plastics and if you already own clothing made from synthetics, do not throw them away but donate or repurpose them to extend their life
- Search for brands that manufacture their products using recycled or upcycled materials
- Replace household products with plastic free options (there are a ton of alternatives that I will talk about more in a future post)
- Switch to cloth diapers instead of the plastic disposable ones
2. Make sure you are properly recycling any of the plastics that you do have.
So much of the plastic we discard ends up in a landfill instead of at a recycling plant and most of the time it’s because it wasn’t recycled properly. Read up on proper recycling methods (what’s acceptable and what’s not), so the next time you head to the bin you’re doing it right. Check out this site for a good place to start: https://www.epa.gov/recycle/how-do-i-recycle-common-recyclables
3. Participate in a cleanup or organize your very own with friends, family and/or people from your community.
There are many great organizations out there leading the way in cleaning up our oceans, teaching, informing and making a huge difference. There are worldwide projects as well as local community groups. I would suggest just looking up the various options and the one that makes the most sense for you.
4. Donate to one of the many ocean conservation or cleanup organizations
Unfortunately, with everything going on in the world right now, group cleanups (for the most part) are at a stand still but if you still want to help, you can donate to an organization that is focused on cleanups, conservation, researching, marine animal rehabilitation etc. Any amount will help! Here are few that I personally support but there are many out there for you to choose from.
5. Get Informed
The more you know about the issues, the better you’ll be able to understand how you can help and make a difference. There are a ton of online resources at your fingertips as well as documentaries, pod casts and books.
I’ve listed some here to get you started:
- Chasing Coral
- A Plastic Ocean
- The True Cost
- Planet of the Humans
- The Sustainability Agenda
- Eco Chic
- Plastic Ocean
- Fish: A Tale About Ridding the Ocean of Plastic Pollution (Kid’s Book)
- Plastic Soup: An Atlas of Ocean Pollution
**Sources for this post: www.nationalgeographic.org, www.theoceancleanup.com, www.forbes.com