THE GREAT PACIFIC GARBAGE PATCH
Did you know the world's biggest landfill is actually floating in the Pacific Ocean... and over 90 percent of it is made up of plastics? It's actually over 100 million tons of garbage1, and is estimated to be around twice the size of the Texas. As you can imagine, the effects of this accumulation of trash are devastating to the local marine life. Bottled water alone produces up to 1.5 million tons of plastic waste per year. According to Food and Water Watch, that plastic requires up to 47 million gallons of oil per year to produce. And over 80 percent of plastic bottles are simply thrown away. Thanks to its slow decay rate, the vast majority of all plastics ever produced still exist - somewhere.
How did all that trash collect?
It's time you know more about this unintentional man-made landfill... or should we say, waterfill. In the broad expanse of the northern Pacific Ocean, there exists a slowly moving, clockwise spiral of currents called the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre. The gyre has actually given birth to two large masses of ever-accumulating trash, known as the Western and Eastern Pacific Garbage Patches, collectively called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The Eastern Garbage Patch floats between Hawaii and California; scientists estimate its size as two times bigger than Texas2. The Western Garbage Patch forms east of Japan and west of Hawaii. Each swirling mass of refuse is massive and collects trash from all over the world.
How prevalent is the problem?
The garbage patches present numerous hazards to marine life, and the human diet. But before we discuss that, it's important to look more closely at the data. Plastic constitutes 90 percent of all trash floating in the world's oceans2. The United Nations Environment Program estimated by 2006 every square mile of ocean already hosted 46,000 pieces of floating plastic3.
Garbage, Wildlife and You
Around 10 percent of the more than 200 billion pounds of plastic the world produces each year ends up in the ocean4. And 70 percent of that eventually sinks, damaging life on the ocean floor4. The remaining 30 percent floats, which is what we see today in the gyres and the massive garbage patches that form.
Some of these long-lasting plastics end up in the stomachs of all sorts of marine wildlife. Besides the danger to wildlife, the effects of the floating debris can eventually find its way back to humans. These toxin-containing plastic pieces are eaten by small marine animals, which are then eaten by larger ones, working its way up the food chain. Many of these fish are then consumed by humans, resulting in the ingestion of toxic chemicals5. Marine plastics also facilitate the spread of invasive species that attach to floating plastic in one region and drift long distances to colonize other ecosystems6.