It has become a household name – the climate bogeyman, a beast of biblical proportions. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is built – or so you would think – from bottles and toothbrushes. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
History of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch
On his way home to Los Angeles after competing in the 1997 Transpacific Yacht Race, Charles Moore sailed through a film of plastic debris. The human-made waste was infamously said to be “twice the size of Texas”.
I was named by Curtis Ebbesmeyer, an oceanographer from Seattle who had previously tracked a consignment of 29,000 rubber ducks, beavers, turtles and frogs as they drifted through the Pacific having been thrown overboard during a squall.
For 15 years, the Patch’s multifarious identities proliferated and it took root in public consciousness. Former US vice-president Al Gore was given honorary citizenship of Trash Isles, an ‘emerging nation’ floating somewhere between California and Hawaii. The Trash Isles were, of course, the Patch.
Then The Ocean Cleanup was founded in 2013. The project aims to rid our oceans of plastic debris and minimise the release of further waste into the sea. Methods deployed have ranged from passive cleaning systems to so-called interceptors.
How do these patches form?
Rubbish added to our oceans from rivers and container ships accumulates in gyres, large circular currents that twine the globe. Objects migrate to specific zones, the confluence of currents or tip-off points, and become stuck. While the Patch is arguably the most nefarious of these cul-de-sacs, there are at least five in total, the results of gyres in the Indian (one), Atlantic (two) and Pacific (two) oceans.
The most commonly circulated images of the (Pacific) Patch feature piles of bottles and fishing nets. But the reality is a little different.
What’s the Patch actually made of?
Short answer: microplastic. About 94% of the 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic in the Patch is a smog of microplastic particles. These bits of eroded, softened plastic come in inconceivably large numbers and are toxic to marine life.
Microplastics are the devil. You’ve heard of them. They’re small – smaller than a pencil eraser. They’re hard to pick up – especially without killing loads of fish. They also make patches such as this hard to quantify or measure.
The majority of the rest, or an estimated 46% of the overall mass, is fishing net. Much of the remainder is fishing industry gear – traps, baskets, crates. It’s not the plastic bottles you read about in headlines, nor bubble wrap or toothbrushes. It’s fishing gear, abandoned and swept out to sea.
Discarded nets strangle, suffocate and injure 100,000 marine animals a year. They also transport species from one place to another. Non-native invasive species can disrupt fragile ecosystems by outcompeting or overcrowding native species.
Ocean Cleanup says it can halve this pollution every year, so what are we worrying about?
It’s worse than that
The reality of ocean pollution is more insidious. The United Nations Environment Programme reports more than two-thirds (70%) of marine litter sinks – which stinks. So the ocean bed is home to more than double the stuff that’s already largely invisible from the water’s surface.
Moreover, according to a study published in Nature, plastic pollution within the Patch is increasing exponentially, which means immediate action is essential.
To run with a domestic metaphor – the drain is blocked, the tap’s on full, and the puddle on the floor is increasing every minute. What’s the first step when dealing with an overflowing sink?
Turn it off
Perhaps the most alarming statistics have to do with global plastic production. To take this as a starting point is to truly understand the scale of the problem. Globally, producers churn out 300 million tons of plastic every year. Of this, half is for single-use purposes.
Eight million tons of plastic makes its way into the oceans each year. Already, the ocean contains up to 165 million tons of plastic which, as Business Insider loves to point out, is 25 times heavier than the Great Pyramid of Giza.
By contrast, the Patch contains an estimated 80,000 tons of plastic, a mere 1% of annual global ocean-bound plastic waste. So the puddle is getting bigger every minute and the tap is spewing out 100 times the volume of the puddle every year.
Any measures to filter plastic from the ocean should be multiplied one hundredfold and redirected towards reducing the plastic bound for the oceans in the first place.
The Patch really is a bogeyman. An amorphous, ugly, life-asphyxiating scapegoat metaphor we use to effectively package the plastics issue into something digestible. By fixating ourselves on this titanic pile of netting and shrouding it in mythos, we see the problem as something both fixable and eternal, as if its presence is a requisite truth.
- 2.5 billion people rely on fish for 20% of their animal protein. Polluted oceans means polluted fisheries, which means polluted us.
- By 2050, scientists estimate there could be as much plastic as there are fish in the ocean. Plastic is literally designed to defeat natural decay. It is both our trump card and our downfall.
- 99% of ocean-dwelling plastic waste is unaccounted for. The island is unseen.
- Plastic chokes the ocean’s ability to trap CO2, thereby exacerbating global heating.
Is there room for hope?
An estimated three-quarters of the Patch’s mass is carried by debris larger than 5cm. This means it can be feasibly removed. Microplastics require more complex filtration systems, which are far more likely to result in collateral catches.
More hope is to be found in the Ocean Cleanup’s interception systems which, when strategically placed in 1,000 river locations around the world, should prevent a portion of ocean-bound plastics from reaching the sea.
What can we do as consumers and voters?
- Avoid high-density polyethylene. This stuff makes soap bottles, toothbrushes, many consumer goods that float in the Patch and elsewhere. Choose Lush, Ethique or any of the proliferation of ethical cosmetics companies. Try shampoo bars, rock salt deodorant, bamboo toothbrushes, all that jazz – see if it works for you.
- Shop at wet markets or don’t use the single-use plastic bags some supermarkets wrap fruit and veg in.
- Buy local, Soil Association certificated, organic etc.
- Carry a tote bag for shopping and a refillable, washable water bottle.
- Vote for the party with the greenest policies.
As Henry Ford said: “Coming together is the beginning. Keeping together is progress. Working together is success.”