Earth is home to five massive quantities of water. Those bodies are what we call oceans. Our oceans are home to a variety of marine life; the plants, animals and other organisms that thrive in the salty water. We love the ocean, the beach and the joy we feel when we experience it. So why have we spent decades throwing our trash into the waters? It does not matter if garbage is thrown directly into the oceans or not — it will get there eventually.
According to The Ocean Cleanup, an estimated 1.15 to 2.41 million tons of plastic enter the oceans from rivers each year. That estimate is expected to increase with every passing year. With all this pollution, we are drowning our oceans. Additionally, more than half of the river-runoff plastic is less dense than water. This means that once it reaches the sea, it will not sink. It will stay on the surface until it deteriorates. Most plastics take hundreds of years to completely degrade.
The more buoyant plastics are easily swept up in sea currents, in wind gusts and even by marine life. These rotating currents are called gyres. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) describes gyres as big whirlpools. They pull marine debris into a central location to form what has been nicknamed “garbage patches.” Garbage patches are expansive areas in the oceans where litter, fishing gear and other debris collects. Currently, there are five garbage patches that mar our oceans — one in the Indian Ocean, two in the Pacific and two in the Atlantic.
However, “patch” is a misleading term. Debris is not neatly corralled into an island of trash. It is free flowing and ever-changing. Patches consist of large pieces of refuse and microplastics. Microplastics are tiny pieces of plastic measuring 5 millimeters or less. The particles are almost invisible to the naked eye. NOAA describes them as pepper flakes floating throughout the water.
The most famous patch is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP). The GPGP is in the North Pacific gyre, somewhere between Hawaii and California. There is no way to determine a definite size or mass of the GPGP, but scientists have given us a decent idea as to how vast it is. The Ocean Cleanup estimates the GPGP to be 1.6 million square kilometers. That is about twice the size of Texas and three times that size of France. This organization figures that 1.1 to 3.6 trillion pieces of plastic make up the GPGP. That number allots 250 pieces of debris for every human in the world.
Scientists continue to study the patch. They believe that the GPGP has a total mass of approximately 80,000 tons, equivalent to that of 500 jumbo jets. This total comes from the center of the patch, the densest part. It took a combination of 30 boats, 652 surface fishing nets, and two flights for aerial images to gather the research needed to make these estimations.
Contrary to what the name suggests, the garbage patches reach farther than the surface. Trash can be found as deep as the ocean floor. This is extremely dangerous for marine life. It is believed that more than 700 species interact with marine debris.
Animals may become entangled in debris, such as plastic bags or six-pack rings and discarded fishing nets. When animals are caught in the unmanned nets, it is dubbed ghost fishing; meaning the nets continue to fish without the guidance of a fishman. Another detrimental factor in ocean pollution is non-native species invasion. Algae, barnacles, crabs and other species can attach themselves to the moving debris. Currents can transport these organisms across the oceans. If the species is invasive, it can settle and create a new environment, effectively outcompeting, overcrowding and disrupting the native ecosystem.
Animals also mistake the plastic for food. There is 180 times more plastic than food available for surface feeding animals. To a sea turtle, there is no difference between a jellyfish and a plastic bag. Up to 74 percent of a turtle’s diet can be made up of ocean plastics.
When animals eat the debris, it can cause malnutrition; it takes up space and makes them think that they are full so they do not eat the food that they should.
Additionally, the chemicals that make up the plastic soak into the animals. Eighty-four percent of the plastic found in the ocean contains an excess of toxic chemicals. This can be harmful to humans. If a fish eats the plastic, and we eat the fish, we are essentially absorbing the same toxins as our meal.
Cleaning up ocean debris is not an easy task. It costs more than $13 billion per year to even attempt to tackle plastic pollution. However, there are ways that we can combat the problem. The Oceanic Society provides a list of seven ways that everyone can help to reduce ocean pollution:
- limit the use of single-use plastics by using reusable bottles instead of plastic water bottles and reusable bags instead of plastic grocery bags;
- volunteer with cleanups;
- support materialistic bans such as straws (which are single-use plastics and are not recyclable);
- avoid products that contain microbeads, which are tiny plastic particles;
- spread the word about the dangers of ocean pollution; and
- support organizations addressing plastic pollution.
It is not just the job of fictional superheroes anymore. It is up to us to take action and save the world.