The Incalculable Toll of Plastic Pollution
by Dyami Rodriguez, age 16
In the North Pacific Ocean, there is a huge accumulation of marine debris called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Reaching from California to Japan, the trash collects mainly because there are four currents all moving clockwise forming a vortex that keeps the waste from escaping.
The currents within the Pacific Ocean all work together to form a gyre, which is a giant system of currents concentrating the trash in one place. While the current outside of the Pacific Trash Vortex is fast-paced, the center of the vortex is calm. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, however, is not just one big island of trash. Instead it consists of a western and eastern patch containing many small and large patches, some being up to 15 meters long. There is a larger current that moves trash back and forth from the western and eastern patch called the Subtropical Convergence Zone (C zone). While the C zone moves the refuse back and forth, other currents take the litter and move it more toward the calmer center.
The vortex was discovered by Charles Moore in 1997 during a yachting race. The largest amount of the trash comes from onland sources while 20% comes from marine sources, such as fishing nets and discarded plastic. Plastic is a huge danger since it is not biodegradable. Instead, it does something called photodegradation, meaning the sun breaks down plastic into smaller pieces called microplastics. Overtime, microplastics ooze bad chemicals into the ocean hurting the environment and animals.
The plastic inside the vortex harms marine life since plastic blocks the sun. The algae underwater does not grow profusely enough to support the living organisms in the area, throwing off the food chain. The fishing nets also trap sea creatures and cause damage to many marine animals.
The main reason no country wants to clean the patch is because it would be too expensive and too much responsibility. It is hard to pick up microplastics because using small enough nets to pick up microplastics would also catch marine life. The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration’s Marine Debris Program has estimated that it would take 67 ships one year to clean up less than one percent of the North Pacific Garbage Patch. Scientists are looking for solutions to stop trash from coming in and making the patch bigger
The Garbage Patch is not the only area in the world holding trash. For example, there is also an island located in the Southern Pacific between New Zealand and Chile called Henderson Island. Tons of trash there is under sediment. The island is located in the South Pacific Gyre, and is also a place with a large amount of plastic.
Much of the trash in these garbage patches is not biodegradable so it only breaks down into smaller pieces that sink to the bottom of the ocean, forming mounds like islands. Alternatively, they become microplastics that satellites can’t pick up. Scientists can't really measure how much trash is in the gyre because they can’t measure how much is underwater.
“We need to drastically rethink our relationship with plastic,” said Jenifer Lavers, who wrote a report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “It’s something that’s designed to last forever, but is often only used for a few fleeting moments and then tossed away.” Even though we use plastics for a short moment, the ocean is harmed by it forever.
[Sources: SSFP Archives; National Geographic; NOAA]