Bottled water and soda bottles, plastic bags, tires and other non biodegradable garbage items sold in plastics and unrecycled all wind up contributing to a problem not many people know exist: the Pacific Ocean garbage island. Sitting in the North Pacific, the huge garbage patch is a swirling mass of plastics that threaten the delicate ocean ecosystem.
Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch
Not all garbage winds up at the dump or in the hands of responsible recyclers. A startling percentage ends up in the ocean, washed away by rainwater, tossed on beaches and bodies of water, or thrown out as litter in outdoor landscapes. Once these items make their way to the ocean, they get caught in currents that pull them to ocean vortices known as gyres. One of these, the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, is where much of the garbage washed out to sea winds up, creating a huge mass of garbage that some estimate is larger than the continental United States. Some of the garbage exists in its original form. Most has been broken up by strong environmental factors, creating a mass of plastic debris and chemical sludge swirling just below the surface, not visible to the casual observer. In fact, most of the garbage is not naked to the visible eye, but present in every water sample obtained from the region at a high level of density.
Not an Island
While many call it the Pacific Ocean Garbage Island, all of this trash is not actually an island at all. Instead, it forms a massive area of free-floating garbage with multiple small islands of trash that have filtered to the bottom of the ocean where they interrupt wildlife. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) Marine Debris Program, this renders it maddeningly difficult to estimate the size of the oceanic garbage dump. While some say it larger than the state of Texas, no one really knows its true size, other than that it is extremely large.
Eastern Garbage Patch
The Eastern Garbage Patch contains high concentrations of unnatural marine debris in an area halfway between Hawaii and California. Due to ocean currents, this area moves and changes, and it is immensely difficult for experts to ascertain just how much debris actually exists in the area or its makeup.
Western Garbage Patch
This area of marine debris sits off the coast of Japan in a recirculation gyre most likely caused by eddies, currents, and wind conditions.
Other Garbage Patches
According to the NOAA, the Eastern and Western Garbage patches are not the only areas of concentrated marine debris. While the media has given the most attention to these two, they exist in other gyres, as well, pulled by ocean currents and atmospheric conditions. Study remains ongoing into overall distribution of garbage throughout the world's oceans, a place that was never meant to contain plastic debris.
Effects on Marine Life
The world's oceans are no place for garbage. According to Greenpeace, at least 267 marine species have suffered negative effects from plastic marine debris, including entanglement or ingestion. This can lead to multiple negative health consequences in species such as whales, fish, sea turtles, and birds. Negative effects can include drowning, suffocation, starvation, and external injuries such as scarring and loss of flippers. Ingested debris can also lead to false satiation, which may cause underfeeding and reductions of population. Further, floating debris may allow non-native species of plants and animals to raft to oceanic ecosystems not prepared for invasion of such species, leading to invasion of alien species and a disturbance in the delicate balance of a region.
Effects on Shoreline
Plastic debris is also washing up on the shorelines, creating a confetti of plastic among the natural materials normally found on beaches. Land species that forage along beaches for food often ingest this debris, leading to may of the aforementioned problems.
As the garbage patch grows, so does the need for solutions. One proposed solution, trawling, presents risks to the marine animals that make garbage patch areas their home; however, many expiditions tawl in a clean-up attempt while trying to minimize capturing sea life in their nets.
Cleaning up the coastline can have a significant effect, as well and the NOAA sponsors international costal clean-up events. These events center on educating people about appropriate trash disposal so it does not wind up in the ocean, as well as providing opportunities for cleanup activities on beaches and in waterways to prevent more debris from washing out to sea. Other steps people can take include:
- Stop using disposable plastics.
- Instead of purchasing individual water bottles, buy a reusable water bottle.
- If you drink soda, purchase it in cans or larger bottles.
- Always recycle plastics.
- Purchase reusable bags for shopping. If you do use plastic bags, take them back to the store for recycling.
- Dispose of hazardous materials appropriately.
- Clean up trash when you find it has not been properly disposed.
Make a Difference
The pollution of Earth's oceans is an issue affecting more than just people in costal communities and marine life. It affects everyone on the planet. While many choose activism, others prefer less drastic solutions. While you individually may not be able to clean up the Earth's oceans and the Pacific Garbage Islands, you can be part of the effort to prevent further plastic debris from finding its way into the waterways. By minimizing plastics use and taking care to properly dispose of the plastics you use, you will contribute to a consistent effort to prevent further polluting of one of the planet's most important resources.