It’s no secret that ocean pollution is extremely dangerous to our environment, as well as to the marine ecosystem.
Therefore, it should be quite alarming when you hear of something like the “Great Pacific garbage patch”.
Such an entity sadly exists in the North Pacific Ocean, which speaks to the amount of pollution infiltrating our ocean water. How did this “garbage patch” come to be, though?
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What is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch?
The name is relatively self-explanatory: the Great Pacific garbage patch or the Pacific trash vortex is literally a garbage accumulation consisting of marine debris and other litter that has settled in the middle of the northern Pacific Ocean.
The patch originates from the Pacific rim or the surrounding landmasses that border the ocean.
It is typically split into two sections, the “Eastern Garbage Patch”, which extends towards the coasts of Hawaii and California, and the “Western Garbage Patch”, which covers the half of the ocean that meets the coastlines of the outer Hawaiian islands all the way to Japan.
The fact that the garbage patch has two separate sectors speaks to the magnitude of its size and effect on ocean pollution.
How Did the Great Pacific Garbage Patch Form?
The garbage patch forms from the debris merging with what is known as the North Pacific Subtropical Convergence Zone, which is located only several hundred kilometers from the coast of Hawaii.
At this convergence zone, warm water from the South Pacific intersects with cooler water from the Arctic, resulting in a jet-stream-like vortex that circulates the accumulated trash around.
It is also supported by phenomena called “gyres”, which are large systems of swirling ocean currents.
These gyres work similarly to hurricanes, as they’re areas of low pressure that spin clockwise, with a center that is quiet and stable.
The circular motions of the outer walls of the gyres draw in the trash that floats in from the land and piles it up on the gyre center, thus creating the garbage patch.
Another reason why this garbage patch has persisted is because of the fact that much of the debris that makes its way to the vortex is not biodegradable, meaning it can’t be absorbed and broken down naturally by the environment.
Instead, items like plastic are broken down into microplastic, which can be even more harmful to sea species, while further proliferating the garbage patch.
You can actually see the patch from outer space using a satellite; it resembles a “cloudy soup” from that perspective.
How Much Debris is in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch?
So much debris has piled up in this vortex that scientists can’t measure the exact quantity of pileage in the garbage patch.
The patch’s location in the middle of the ocean also makes it very difficult for scientists to swim and dive in order to examine it.
Debris that is more dense can actually sink beneath the surface as well, making it nearly impossible to account for every piece of garbage out there, including microplastics.
However, scientists have made estimates regarding the sources of this garbage patch. It is believed that 80 percent of the plastic found in the patch comes from land sources, while the other 20 percent comes from marine equipment and boats.
Since plastic is not biodegradable, it tends to sit on the water surface and pile up rapidly over time, which explains why it makes up a substantial portion of the debris found in the garbage patch.
Can We Clean Up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch?
In theory, we could. It wouldn’t be easy, however. The trouble is that no nation has mustered up the funds or the willingness to execute such a mission.
This is largely in part because the garbage patch sits in no man’s land, therefore no country feels a direct responsibility for the creation or the subsequent cleaning of this marine trash heap.
Additionally, microplastics would make it nearly impossible to account for every single piece of garbage that is collected, even if an effort was made.
In fact, NOAA estimates that it would take over 67 ships in one year just to clean less than one percent of the garbage patch.
That is certainly a major factor to consider when pondering a massive cleanup effort such as this one.
So while an effort could theoretically be made to clean up this trash vortex, it would take a long time to fully complete.