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The Great Pacific Garbage Patch

Updated: Nov 23, 2021

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP) is an area of marine litter about the size of Texas, the most important expression of the impact of plastic waste on our world and the role of humans in environmental degradation. The GPGP became popular through global media coverage, shifting its focus from plastic pollution to misrepresented and misattributed photos that purported to show a matte, flat surface of debris in the middle of the Pacific. The name "Pacific Garbage Patch" led many to think that the area was a large, continuous patch of visible marine debris whose objects, such as bottles and other waste, resembled literally garbage dumpsters visible in satellite and aerial photos.

Considering that every minute a plastic garbage truck enters the ocean and never disappears, it is vital to separate fact from fiction when discussing marine litter. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP) - a site of marine debris twice the size of Texas - is just one of the many ways in which man-made environmental degradation has governed our natural world in phenomenal fashion. Its allegedly dramatic aesthetic fails to address the impact of the waste that underlies the global plastic problem.

" Breaking down the plastic waste into tiny, invisible pieces."

The Pacific Ocean zone

The spot was discovered by Charles Moore in 1997, a sailor who sailed to Los Angeles in 1997 through a hodgepodge of floating plastic bottles and other debris. It arose as a vortex in the subtropical convergence zone of the North Pacific i.e., Sailors avoid the region because it is a high-pressure region in the Pacific where the winds swirl and the water swirls.

Marine debris is concentrated in different regions of the North Pacific Ocean, not just in one area. It takes about a year for the debris from the Pacific coast to get into the subtropical vortex, a clockwise rotation that absorbs and carries away solids such as plastic waste, breaking down the plastic waste into tiny, invisible pieces.

Debris in the garbage patch mixes with wind and waves and spreads from the surface to the seabed. Plastic parts smaller than 5 mm are the smallest and are so mixed and spread that it is difficult to remove them. The exact size and contents of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch are hard to predict.

The NOAA Marine Debris Program focuses on the prevention and removal of marine debris, especially along coasts and coastal areas where debris is easy to pick up. Only 1 percent of ocean plastic floats on the surface of the oceans. Massive discarded fishing nets and microplastics up to a size of one millimetre can catch up to 60 bin bags. The statistics on plastic in the oceans are so stark, and the problem so insurmountable, that one wonders what we on Earth are going to do about it.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, also known as North Pacific Subtropical High is an area where a high concentration of waste is sucked into the centre of an inverted whirlpool known as an ocean vortex. It lies between California and Hawaii, and there are other spots around the world in four other ocean swirls, including one in the Pacific between Hawaii and Japan called the western garbage patch. To some extent, this Pacific Ocean zone, from Hawaii to California, has a higher concentration of plastic waste than the US states of Texas and Alaska and Afghanistan.

The waste ranges from large abandoned fishing nets to tiny pieces of microplastic measuring just 5mm. We used to think that most debris consisted of small fragments, but the new analysis sheds new light on the extent of the debris. The debris spreads from the water surface to the seabed. 30 ships collected a total of 1.2 million plastic samples while air sensors scanned over 300 square kilometres of the sea surface. The research team found that 92 per cent of the mass represented large objects and 8 per cent contained microplastics, defined as pieces smaller than 5mm.

The particles scattered on the surface reach the North Pacific - yurt, a circular seawater highway of rotating currents that compact them together and scatter them into larger pieces floating in the ocean. The result is a large soup of floating garbage.

The publication of the Litter Patch study coincides with a new report by Britain's Foresight: The Future of the Seas, which found that unless major action is taken to prevent plastic from entering the oceans, plastic pollution in the oceans could triple by 2050. The report identified plastic pollution as one of the biggest environmental threats to the oceans, alongside rising sea levels and warming oceans.


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