What Is The Pacific Garbage Patch

Water and the Environment

What happens when a plastic bottle cap is swept into a storm drain? It goes out to the ocean, of course. This is not a rare occurrence; plastic is washed out to sea all the time. Unfortunately, so much plastic has been disposed of over the years that a giant garbage patch has formed in the Pacific Ocean. The Pacific Garbage Patch is very harmful to marine life, but scientists have had trouble monitoring its growth and generating feasible ideas for cleaning it up.

What is the Pacific Garbage Patch?

Discovered about in 1997 by Captain Charles Moore, the Pacific Garbage Patch is made up of plastic debris that has been dumped into the ocean and swept together by large swirling currents called gyres.  Some refer to it as an “island of plastic,” but in actuality the greatest bulk of the Pacific Garbage Patch is not very visible. The patch is actually made up of very small, almost microscopic, pieces of plastic that float just beneath the surface of the water. This is just one form of water pollution, but it concerns scientists very much.

How did it form?

Once the plastic is washed out to sea, ocean currents and gyres swirl it into a vortex and hold it in the center of a high pressure area. Gyres, or large scale swirls of ocean current, can collect large amounts of debris in one spot. There it slowly breaks down into almost invisible pieces.  After decades of plastic dumping, the garbage patch has grown to an enormous size and continues to grow.  While some claim that the garbage patch is approximately twice the size of Texas, these estimates have recently been disputed.

How does it affect marine life?

The environmental impact of marine debris is profound. It is a particular threat to marine mammals, such as the endangered Pacific Monk Seal and many species of whales. Seabirds and turtles can become entangled in the larger pieces, and many birds, turtles, and fish are dying from ingesting the bits of plastic. Much of it is smothering coral reefs as it falls to the ocean floor. It is even a threat to human health when it washes up on beaches or floats in swimming areas.

How fast is the Pacific Garbage Patch growing?

It is reasonable to believe that the Pacific Garbage Patch is growing. As the human population grows, we use more plastic that is washed into the ocean. However, it is difficult to measure its growth rate. The patch is hard to see, as explained above, and its shape changes as the waters around it swirl. Further, the garbage patch is not a continuous mass. Within the area of the Pacific Garbage Patch, there are large expanses of clear water. All of these factors make it difficult for scientists to estimate how fast it is growing.

Why don’t we just clean it all up?

It is not that easy. First of all, lack of visibility makes it difficult to find pieces of plastic to collect. It might be in one area today, then swirled hundreds of miles away the next. Secondly, it is difficult and costly to travel hundreds of miles into the Pacific to pick up microscopic pieces of plastic.

What about skimming?

A lot of marine life lives under the plastic, but plankton live among it. Since plankton and plastic pieces are about the same size, a skimming and filtering operation would pick up both. In addition to the prohibitive cost, skimming could destroy the plankton that is both the base of the ocean’s food chain and responsible for half of the photosynthesis on Earth.

Unfortunately, little has been done to solve this growing problem, as scientists have struggled to come up with efficient and cost-effective ways to rid the ocean of the debris. With no well-defined border, The Pacific Garbage Patch is even hard to monitor. For now, scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are working on the problem, but a solution seems to be a long way off.