Ecology and the Environment

Can we clean up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch?
Answered by Diana Bocco and Planet Green
  • Diana Bocco

    Diana Bocco

  • Planet Green

    Planet Green

  1. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is the world's largest marine landfill. Also known as the Pacific Trash Vortex, it covers a vast area in the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre. Because the gyre is a spiral current that moves in a circular motion, the garbage caught in it remains "stuck" together, moving as a single mass between Hawaii, Japan and California. As new garbage finds its way into the patch, the area grows (the patch is purportedly about the size of Texas). 

    Most of the patch consists of plastic debris. In fact, more than 90 percent of the garbage floating in the ocean is plastic [source: The Independent]. Besides being unsightly, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is also dangerous to marine life. Animals swallow large amounts of plastic as they try to eat plankton and many of them die as a result. The plastic also attracts toxic chemicals known as persistent organic pollutants, which are poisonous to animals and sea plants.

    Cleaning the Great Pacific Garbage Patch has been a goal of green organizations for years. However, many recognize the task is next to impossible. According to scientists from the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, the patch is just too large and too "broken down" to be cleanable [source: San Francisco Gate]. As plastic is exposed to the sun, it photodegrades (breaks down) into fine plastic chips. In some areas, the plastic is as fine as dust. Once the plastic turns into dust, it sinks to the bottom of the ocean, making it even more difficult to clean.

    A more feasible option would be to clean as much surface debris as possible, scooping out the larger pieces. Project Kaisei is a San Francisco-based nonprofit organization studying the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The ultimate goal of the organization is to find a way to "capture" (rather than "clean") 40 tons of plastic so it can then be recycled. If that works, the group would then move on to capturing larger amounts at a time. The organization (in partnership with a Hong-Kong based environmental association) is trying to come up with new methods that will allow for a cleanup of the garbage without hurting marine life in the process.

    In the end, the best thing that can be done for ocean debris is to stop producing it. Pushing for more recycling programs and reducing the amount of plastic we use and dispose of will also make a difference.

    More answers from Diana Bocco »

  2. The system of currents called the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre spins around in the northern Pacific Ocean. It twirls slowly in a clockwise direction, thanks to a system of high-pressure air currents. Although few fish or mammals survive in it, millions of pounds of trash float there. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is the largest landfill in the world despite its oceanic location. Most experts, including the man who discovered it, believe any effort to clean up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch would be futile.

    Efforts to clean up this patch, which floats about 1,000 miles (1,609 kilometers) north of the Hawaiian Islands, would have to overcome not only the distance to get to it and the incredible cost, but also the effects of photodegradation. Photodegradation is the process by which the sun's rays dry out plastic until it shatters into countless tiny pieces. These bits float down as far as 300 feet (91 meters) beneath the water's surface, and no one has yet developed a good way to pull them out of the water [source: Berton]. In fact, in 2011, an Oregon State University assistant professor of oceanography reported that not only were stories about the size of the Pacific Garbage Patch as being twice that of Texas exaggerated, but that removing plastics from the ocean would expend energy about 250 times plastic's mass [source: Oregon State]. At this point, the best action is prevention by consumers using fewer plastic products and ensuring that plastics don't make their way to landfills and ocean dumps.

    Still, ocean plastic and pollution are problematic. As if the trash itself were not horrifying enough, the patches produce what are called mermaid tears, or nurdles. These tiny pieces of plastic are produced when plastic objects photodegrade and float around in the ocean. Creatures feed on them, which poisons them and creates blockages. When these creatures are in turn eaten by bigger marine life, the toxicity is passed on to these animals as well.

    The patch has branched off into what are known as Western and Eastern Pacific Garbage Patches; the Western Patch is east of Japan but west of Hawaii, and the Eastern Patch hovers between Hawaii and California. The two patches are connected by the Subtropical Convergence Zone, a current 6,000 miles (9,700 kilometers) long that also collects garbage. Garbage enters the water mostly from land and much of it gets stuck in gyres.

    More answers from Planet Green »

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