Would you believe that a "seventh continent" made up of trash exists in the Pacific Ocean? A mass of bottles, toys, debris, and fishing nets just floating in the middle of nowhere, no land in sight? Well, that's the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. While "the seventh continent" is an exaggeration, we know that the patch is roughly 4 times the size of California. Fish and marine life are ingesting plastic from this collection that spans 617,763 square miles. Those fish and marine creatures eventually make it into our food chain, meaning we ingest the same microplastics.
Where Does It Come From?
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch - Illustration by AeviaResearchers are studying the source of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The Asian coast produces tons of plastic, and inevitably run-off and litter will enter the Kuroshio Current System. This oceanic current system will transport the majority of debris to the GPGP. Researchers have found toys and household items which may have come from the devastating 2011 Japanese tsunami. Tons of debris made its way into the sea during the natural disaster.
Another culprit that previously went unnoticed was the presence of ghost nets. Ghost nets, or plastic nets discarded by fishermen in open waters, bind debris together in the Patch. These nets contribute to at least half its' weight of 87,000 tons. These nets are designed to withstand seawater for much longer than other plastics, which may explain their presence. Another theory is the patches nearby location to fishing grounds.
How Does The Great Pacific Garbage Patch Affect You?Besides being pretty disgusting, the contents of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch do have an effect on your diet. Over time, plastic, wood, and other substances in the Patch will break down into microplastics. Once these pieces are small enough for fish and other marine life to ingest, they will begin to make their way into our diet via the nearby fishing grounds. Researchers caught several sea turtles near the Patch and discovered they were eating so much plastic, it made up nearly three-fourths of their diet. Not only does this pose a threat to our health by affecting components of the food chain, it also affects the health of marine life. While we may not see the effects in our lifetime, sea turtles, fish, and other life in the area can sicken and die from pollutants in the water.
Why Don't They Just Pick It Up?
Since the discovery of the Patch in the early 90's, researchers have been strategizing on how best to collect the plastic and debris in this area of the ocean. Because nearby currents draw it in and keep it there, the conditions in this particular spot accumulate floating objects easily. Originally, it was thought that the Patch mostly consisted of microplastics. Microplastics are extremely broken down and too small for regular collection methods, and so researchers were stumped. However, examination, study, and aerial photos of the Patch have revealed that it contains much larger debris than previously thought. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is between 4-16 times larger than suspected just last year. Not only is it larger, but its weight is around 87 tons and holds 1.7 trillion pieces of trash.
Unfortunately, nets would be little help in the face of these staggering numbers. Because of the presence of so many ghost nets, trawling methods would merely tangle and add to the trash.