“Close your eyes and imagine this…you are sailing through the Pacific Ocean, just you and a few close friends, enjoying the mild sunshine, the endless stretch of sea before you and the pod of dolphins who’ve decided to join your journey. Then you spot it. It starts out as one plastic bag floating on the seas surface, quickly followed by a couple of coke bottles, then a ripped fishing net. The further you sail the more concentrated the rubbish becomes. This is the stark reality of what is occurring in the Pacific Ocean.”
Like many of my fellow Australians, I grew up by the beach, spending my summers swimming, snorkeling and surfing. This developed my deep appreciation for the ocean and the unique and delicate ecosystem that exists within our seas. So imagine my surprise and disgust when a representative came to my high school and opened her speech with the above quote.
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, or Pacific Trash Vortex, was founded by Charles Moore in 1997 as he took a short cut home from a yacht race between Los Angeles and Hawaii. Moore chose to cut through the North Pacific Gyre, a ‘vortex where the ocean currents circulates slowly because of little wind and extreme high pressure systems.’ (Richards, 2009). The garbage patch is actually made of two separate gyres, one either side of the Hawaiian Islands.
How did it form?
The swirling motion of the Western and Eastern vortexes attracts the oceans rubbish and collects it in the clam centres of the vortexes. (National Geographic, 2014) The subtropical convergence zone acts like a highway between these two vortexes, collecting rubbish floating along the way and adding to the accumulated rubbish already in the vortexes. Once the rubbish is deposited in these vortexes, it doesn’t leave and as a result huge build ups of garbage occurs.
What is found in the vortexes?
Whilst many people imagine these patches to be almost like a floating island this is not the case. The majority, estimated at 90%, of waste is plastics, and whilst plastic is not biodegradable it does break own into micro-plastics, causing the patch to look more like a ‘plasticy soup’ than a solid mass (NOAA, 2013).
This is of specific concern as plastic doesn’t biodegrade; it photo-degrades, meaning it breaks into smaller and smaller pieces, known as flotsam, eventually becoming microscopic and therefore extremely harmful to marine life.
So how much plastic are we really talking about?
In 2006, the United Nations Environment Programme estimated that every square mile of ocean contains approximately 46,000 pieces of floating plastic, a scarily big number considering the amount is only expected to increase due to modern society’s reliance on plastic. (Moore, 2009)
Who is responsible for the rubbish?
In short, we all are. Samples of the rubbish found in the garbage patches has been traced back to locations the world over. It has been found that ‘80% of marine litter origins from land based sources’ (Theodorou, 2012) and that the remaining 20% is from marine based sources such as shipping vessels, offshore oil rigs and cruises. Every-time someone litters on the street it ends up in our oceans. Every-time someone throws a cigarette butt out of their window, it ends up in our oceans. Every-time someone spits their gum onto the sidewalk, it ends up in our oceans.
The Pacific Garbage Patch is a global issue, and as we will discuss next week, its impacts are harmful to all of us.
In the mean-time, check out this TED talk given by the founder of the crash circle, Charles Moore.
National Geographic 2014, Great Pacific Garbage Patch, National Geographic, retrieved 10th April 2016, < http://education.nationalgeographic.org/encyclopedia/great-pacific-garbage-patch/>
NOAA 2013, Marine Debris Program, NOAA, retrieved 5th April 2016, <https://marinedebris.noaa.gov/info/plastic.html>
Richards, S 2009, ‘The World’s rubbish dump: a garbage tip that stretches from Hawaii to Japan’, The Independent, 5 February, retrieved 13 April 2016, < http://www.independent.co.uk/environment/green-living/the-worlds-rubbish-dump-a-tip-that-stretches-from-hawaii-to-japan-778016.html>
Theodorou, S 2012, ‘Plastic litter in the Sea’, Thesis for Water policy, Law and Governance, Utrecht University, retrieved 3rd April 2016, http://ucwosl.rebo.uu.nl/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/Theodorou.pdf