Great Pacific Garbage Patch
It's really quite safe to say that it's worse than we thought - Boyan Slat
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch has received a lot of attention over the last couple decades. But for all the media coverage, researchers still didn't know a lot about it, until now. As Laura Parker reports for National Geographic, a new study takes a closer look at the trash and the results suggest it's a bit different than we imagined.
The patch contains around 79,000 metric tons of trash, making it four to 16 times larger than previously estimated. What’s more, it's made up of a surprisingly large percentage of sizable debris—and it's collecting incredibly fast.
First discovered in 1997, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch was never a physical mass of objects, but rather a soup of tiny plastic debris. Oceanographer and sailboat racer Charles Moore noticed the plastic soup while sailing his yacht in the Pacific ocean between Hawaii and California. The patch (in fact, there are two patches, a western and eastern patch) is created by the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, a system of circular currents that tend to draw debris into its stable center, trapping it.
While the patch doesn't contain any "land" per se, it solidified in the popular imagination, often touted as a "floating mass" the size of Texas. Just last year, as a PR stunt, the conservation group Plastic Oceans Foundation and some advertising gurus petitioned the U.N. to recognize the Patch as a new nation, called Trash Isles. They even mocked up a passport, stamps, and a currency called “debris.”
But the idea of a "continent" of trash is far fetched. In a 2016 article debunking the myth, Daniel Engber at Slate described the patch as a soup of trillions of pieces of microplastics, which are created as plastic degrades. (Microplastics are also commonly included in many cosmetics.) Such itty bitty plastics can make their way into the food chain—and researchers are still sorting out the impacts.
The latest research on the Garbage Patch, however, suggests it's made up of more than just tiny bits.
To get a handle on what's in the patch and just how large it is, a team of oceanographers commissioned by the conservation group Ocean Cleanup undertook a comprehensive study of the patch. According to a press release, previous studies were not able to accurately assess the volume of trash in the patch because they used small nets to sample the debris, which excluded larger chunks.
To remedy this issue, the Ocean Cleanup team used 30 boats that simultaneously surveyed the patch over the course of a summer, supplemented by two aircraft. One of the ships trawled with two 19-foot-wide devices, sampling for very large objects. The aircraft were outfitted with multispectral and 3D sensors to scan the ocean surface for large pieces of garbage as well. The study appears in the journal Scientific Reports.
The team found that the patch spans an area three times the size of France, containing 1.8 trillion pieces of mostly plastic debris. Overall, this is the equivalent to the weight of 500 jumbo jets. Surprisingly, they found that large pieces of plastic made up 92 percent of that mass, while microplastics accounted for only 8 percent. It turns out, the patch is more like a chunky stew than a soup.
“We were surprised by the amount of large plastic objects we encountered,” Julia Reisser, chief scientist of the expedition says in the release. “We used to think most of the debris consists of small fragments, but this new analysis shines a new light on the scope of the debris.”
In fact, 46 percent of the debris in the patch is lost or discarded fishing gear, including “ghost nets” which drift through the ocean tangling up animals as they go. “I knew there would be a lot of fishing gear, but 46 percent was unexpectedly high,” oceanographer Laurent Lebreton, lead author of the study tells Parker. “Initially, we thought fishing gear would be more in the 20 percent range. That is the accepted number [for marine debris] globally—20 percent from fishing sources and 80 percent from land.”
It’s also believed up to 20 percent of the debris in the patch could have been washed into the ocean during the devastating 2011 tsunami in Japan.
Perhaps counterintuitively, the fact that the patch is chunkier than expected is good news. Cleaning up microplastics is very difficult, if not impossible, while recovering fishing gear might actually be a feasible task, but far from easy. As Livia Albeck-Ripka at The New York Times reports, conventional methods like trawling nets would not work for cleaning up the patch. That's why the Ocean Cleanup Foundation, founded by Dutch teenager Boyan Slat (now 23) has been attempting to develop a system that will concentrate microplastics and debris for easier cleanup.
The Foundation's ambitious designs have garnered much criticism, and experts worry their methods could hurt wildlife. But oceanographers say something needs to be done, whether it's in the ocean or on land, where much of the pollution originates.
“Plastic pollution in the ocean is visible and trackable,” marine researcher Britta Denise Hardesty of the Australian research group CSIRO tells Marian Liu at CNN. “We can definitely make a difference in how we vote with our pocketbook and think about each decision we make, whether we take our own bags to the supermarkets, refuse straws, bring our own coffee cups, accept single-use items or think about mindful alternatives.”
Another solution is finding inexpensive and feasible ways for fishermen to dispose for old fishing nets to prevent abandoning of equipment, an idea central to the NGO-led Global Ghost Gear Initiative.
Source: Jason Daley, The Great Pacific Garbage Patch Is Much Larger and Chunkier Than We Thought, Smithsonian.com, March 23, 2018.
Can a controversial young entrepreneur rid the ocean of plastic trash? In May, 2017, a twenty-two-year-old Dutch entrepreneur named Boyan Slat unveiled a contraption that he believed would rid the oceans of plastic. In a former factory in Utrecht, a crowd of twelve hundred people stood before a raised stage. The setting was futuristic and hip.
That giant pile of plastic trash in the ocean just got a little smaller. Dutch inventor Boyan Slat's Ocean Cleanup project recently collected its first plastic from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
There’s even more plastic in the Pacific than we thought. At least 79,000 tonnes of plastic are floating in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. That’s four to sixteen times as much as was estimated by two studies in 2014.
The Garbage Patch is an area of 1.6 million square kilometres between Hawaii and California. There, floating debris – from microscopic particles of plastic to large pieces like ropes and fishing nets – is carried by currents and accumulates. Similar patches exist in other oceans.
In recent years, this notorious mess has become known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a swirling oceanic graveyard where everyday objects get deposited by the currents. The plastics eventually disintegrate into tiny particles that often get eaten by fish and may ultimately enter our food chain.
The highest levels of microplastics are found more than 650 feet below the surface.
When I learned about the Ocean Cleanup project’s 600-meter-long barrier with a three-meter-deep net, a wall being placed in the open ocean, ostensibly to collect plastic passively as the currents push water through the net, I thought immediately of the neuston. How will it be impacted? But in the 146 pages of the Ocean Cleanup’s environmental-impact assessment, this ecosystem isn’t mentioned once.
In June, the athlete and environmental advocate embarked on a swim through a highly polluted stretch between Hawaii and California. By September, he hopes to traverse 300 nautical miles of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the world’s largest accumulation of marine plastic debris. It’s an area that’s not well understood, despite recent media attention to the growing problem of plastic waste.
Plastic is everywhere, from our homes and everyday lives all the way up to the illusorily pristine Arctic. The oceans are no exception—our high seas are accumulating plastic just as fast as we can push it out into the world.
As governments and NGO’s scramble to find a solution to the dumping of plastic polymers in our oceans, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch continues to grow to a size rivaling one of the earth’s continents - Shilo Zylbergold
These garbage patches aren't visible from space — or even, necessarily, from a passing boat — since most of the plastic is bobbing just beneath the surface, and most of the particles are smaller than 1 centimeter in diameter. Over time, the plastic bits get broken down into ever smaller pieces as they get battered by waves and degraded by the sun.
But these garbage patches are massive, collectively holding some 7,000 to 35,000 tons of plastic in all. The patch in the North Pacific was by far the biggest — containing about one-third of all the floating plastic found. (Much of the plastic debris from eastern China, for instance, collects here.)
Ocean plastic can persist in sea surface waters, eventually accumulating in remote areas of the world’s oceans. Here we characterise and quantify a major ocean plastic accumulation zone formed in subtropical waters between California and Hawaii: The Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP).
To many ocean scientists, this isn’t in the least bit surprising. As we’ve reported, researchers have been warning that first of all, the sea will easily demolish a 600-meter-long plastic tube. Two, the device could imperil sea life. Three, it wouldn’t make a dent in the ocean plastic problem anyway, given that only a fraction of the trash is floating at the surface. And four, even if Ocean Cleanup’s plan did somehow work, this isn’t the way to go about fixing the mess we’ve unleashed on the seas.
I keep reading about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, that floating island of trash between California and Hawaii. Can we ever clean it up? And should we even bother?
There's far too much plastic in the world's oceans, and the problem continues to build up.
Every little bit of plastic that gets tossed into the ocean or swept downstream out to sea either sinks or is picked up by currents. Much of it is eventually carried into one of five massive ocean regions, where plastic can be so concentrated that areas have garnered names like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
For a project that sounded too good to be true, perhaps we should not have been so surprised that it didn’t work immediately. After all, waste is a looming international crisis and the Ocean Conservancy estimates that a garbage truck load of plastic enters the ocean every minute and that more than $5b of new recycling and waste infrastructure is needed to address the problem.
As you read this, a strange object that looks like a 2,000-foot floating pool noodle is drifting slowly through the central north Pacific Ocean. This object is designed to solve an enormous environmental problem. But in so doing, it brings attention to a number of others.
There are an estimated five trillion pieces of plastic floating on and in the world’s oceans. The massive pool noodle will move through the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, driven by the wind and currents and picking up the plastic it encounters along the way. Ocean Cleanup, the organization that developed the device, promises “the largest cleanup in history.”
China and Indonesia are likely the top sources of plastic reaching the oceans, accounting for more than a third of the plastic bottles, bags and other detritus washed out to sea, an international research team of environmental scientists reported Thursday.
A new study shows the patch is not just microplastics. Fishing gear and large pieces make up 92 percent of the trash.
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is the largest accumulation of ocean plastic in the world and is located between Hawaii and California. Scientists of The Ocean Cleanup have conducted the most extensive analysis ever of this area.
Project Kaisei is a non-profit organization based in San Francisco and Hong Kong, established to increase the understanding and the scale of marine debris, its impact on our ocean environment, and how we can introduce solutions for both prevention and clean-up.
About 80 percent of the debris in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch comes from land-based activities in North America and Asia. Trash from the coast of North America takes about six years to reach the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, while trash from Japan and other Asian countries takes about a year.