The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, also referred to as the Pacific Trash Vortex, is a collection of marine debris or ‘garbage’ in the North Pacific Ocean.
The ‘patch’ spans from the west coast of North America all the way across to Japan and was discovered in 1997 by Charles Moore.
How has ‘the patch’ got there?
Contrary to popular belief, it is in fact land waste that makes up most of the patch with about 54 per cent coming from activities in North America and Asia.
Only 20 per cent comes from boats, oil rigs and cargo ships. Most of that figure comprises of fishing nets.
What is the impact to the Ocean?
In many respects, the full impact of this ‘garbage island’ cannot yet be measured.
However, what we do know is the majority of the ‘marine debris’ is composed of plastic.
Plastic is one of the most widely used and mass-produced materials due to its low cost and versatility, but it also is one of the ocean’s worst pollutants.
It does not decompose but, more worryingly than simply floating in the sea, it breaks down into smaller pieces after being weathered by waves and photodegradation from the sun.
Plastic is extremely harmful to many forms of marine life, something as we have seen time and again with turtles ingesting plastic bags that looks like jellyfish or when fish are caught in plastic ring packaging.
We also see species of whale suffering from starvation and dehydration brought about by the plastic stuffing their bellies.
Other marine mammals, such as seals, have in recent years also been found drowned after becoming entangled in plastic fishing nets.
It is however not only mammals that are suffering from this pollution but the whole spectrum of sea life.
The entire marine food web is being disrupted because garbage patches circling on the surface are blocking sunlight from reaching plant life on the ocean floor such as algae and plankton.
Both of those communities are integral to the balance of the food web and a threat to them could irrevocably affect ocean life.
Fish, turtles and other marine life all feed on these plants and with less food they will begin to die out.
In turn marine life that feeds on fish populations, like sharks and whales, will also begin to die out.
Does this affect humans?
In short, yes.
It is not simply a superficial matter of seafood becoming more difficult to source and therefore more expensive, but the danger of plastic to human health.
It breaks down over time, releasing harmful chemicals like bisphenol A, commonly known as BPA.
That means not only is the water becoming polluted, but marine life eaten by humans is too.
Fish that we consume are regularly exposed to harmful chemicals and plastics, either through the water or by consuming them, which is how it enters our food chain.
Because plastic pollution being a global issue, it is difficult to tell in what ways the human body is affected.
What is being done about it?
Nothing, largely because the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is so far away from any country’s coastline.
There is no money set aside to deal with it and no nation is prepared to take responsibility.
Individuals and organisations have instead dedicated themselves to the cause.
It is estimated that cleaning up the patch up would bankrupt any country that tried, meaning all that is being done currently is stopping it from growing.
Even if a concerted effort was made to clean up the patch, a growing number of microplastics has complicated the situation.
Microplastics can be less than 5mm in size, and therefore nets used to collect them would likely catch – and even kill - marine life in the process.
With this knowledge, it is the prevailing belief of scientists, researchers and explorers alike that the way forward is to begin limiting single use and disposable plastic.
By utilising biodegradable alternatives, we can slowly begin tackling the global plastic pollution crisis and begin dealing with the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.