Is there really an island of plastic rubbish floating in the ocean?

plastic in ocean
The Trash Vortex, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch or just the Plastic Island, this giant swirl of floating rubbish in the Pacific Ocean goes by many names. But none of them quite capture what it really is and why it’s so worrying.

In this article, we’re going to sail way out to sea and dive into what’s really going on.

What is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch?

For a start, there is no island of garbage. If you sailed to the middle of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch you wouldn’t see … anything, actually. Forget images of a stinky pile of junk picked over by a cloud of raucous seagulls. Most of the bad news is under the surface in billions of tiny little bits spread over a vast area of open water.

To get an idea of what we’re talking about, imagine the whole northern Pacific Ocean as a giant cooking pot. Coriolis effects, ocean currents and winds are stirring it in a clockwise direction. This kind of vast, yet very slow, whirlpool is called a gyre. This is our pot and we’re going to make a soup.

When we add ingredients, they, like in any swirling soup, all migrate to the centre. Natural processes, like runoff and erosion, are always washing ‘ingredients’ into the oceans and they collect in gyres all over the world. There, these natural ingredients form habitats for small marine creatures and spread nutrients as they decompose.

However, in the case of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (and the smaller but still concerning North Atlantic Garbage Patch), far too much of the ‘soup ingredients’ aren’t natural things, but rather bits of plastic, lost fishing nets and other pieces of artificial junk.

Further, while much of these artificial ingredients are washed into the ocean by natural processes, boats and ships actually just dump a fair bit right into the middle.

How big is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch

The simple answer is: too big. Being more definite is harder than it seems. Even the term ‘soup’ oversells what is going on. The garbage is very spread out and most of it is specks of plastic floating below the surface.

At the edges there is very little of this rubbish and it gets denser in the middle. The total estimated weight ranges from 80,000 to 3.5 million tonnes. While there are occasionally large pieces (such as entire lost shipping containers), the most concentrated part of the soup contains around 100kg of plastic waste for every square kilometre. If that doesn’t sound like much, try this on for size…

If we convert the areas and weight into their equivalents as football fields and cigarette butts, then each football field of the worst part of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch contains about 295 cigarette butts. And the ‘worst part’ covers an area at least the size of New South Wales.

turtle and plastic bag

The open ocean used to be incredibly pure

The concentration of rubbish in the garbage patch is way, way too much for the animals there to deal with. Why? Because this was a ‘clean’ environment in a way that’s hard for people to imagine.

Not many people spend much time far from land, so we landlubbers don’t grasp what it’s really like. Generally, there is nothing out there. Just water, a sprinkling of microscopic life and the occasional group of passing fish, seabirds, sharks or dolphins, etc. It would not make a very interesting nature documentary if they showed the reality that the open ocean is thousands and thousands of kilometres of water as empty as the sky.

This is why even the thin soup of the garbage patch is so concerning. It’s in an environment so pure that 100kg of junk in a square kilometre is a dramatic change.

What’s in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch?

There is a lot of different stuff floating around in the gyre. Some of it is completely natural (such as pumice and vegetation) and a fair bit of it man-made but biodegradable (such as wood and natural-fibre rope). These aren’t the worry. The problem is the amount of synthetic material out there. This is largely single-use plastic (yes, like straws, plastic bags and toys), bits of fishing equipment and chemical sludge.

The special issue with single-use plastic is that it doesn’t biodegrade, but it does disintegrate. This means the big pieces break down into the tiny individual polymer particles.

These are so small that the animals that are out there or passing through can’t help but ingest them, just like you can’t help breathing in some dust when the wind picks up. But as plastic is indigestible, it lodges inside the animals. It blocks their digestive systems while also slowly poisoning them. And as the little fish get contaminated, the bigger fish eat them. This process concentrates the pollution in the bigger sea creatures.

It might not be overstating things to say that every single large ocean-going animal – every whale, shark, tuna, dolphin and turtle – has this plastic poisoning to some degree.

How do we clean it up?

You’ll understand why this is a tough question given what you’ve just learned about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. How do you filter out sub-surface ‘plastic dust’ from hundreds of thousands of cubic-kilometres of water?

The most promising idea is from a crowdfunded company that started on the back of a TED talk given by Dutch teenager Boyan Slat. Called The Ocean Cleanup, his organisation is building giant pontoon-and-net devices designed to work as an ‘artificial coastline’ to trap plastic particles. The launch of the trial device is set for 2020.

Some scientists are critical of The Ocean Cleanup’s approach though, arguing the nets will make the problem worse and also attract sea creatures – which are drawn to any structures in their largely empty environment – to the most polluted places. Ongoing research is intensive.

How can you prevent plastic pollution in the ocean

There are several ways you can help avoid contributing to the problem of plastic in the oceans.

    1. Don’t buy single-use plastics. All the plastic packaging and bottles you buy contribute to the problem. Choose and reuse glass bottles or eco-friendly packaging options like cardboard and cloth. In fact, all of Roocreate’s packaging is biodegradable.
    2. Recycle. Wherever possible, you should recycle your plastic and buy recycled plastics.
    3. Join in a clean-up day. Either as part of a big event or just a small group, coastline cleaning efforts really do help.
    4. Spread the word and support legislative measures. Raising awareness of the issue with your fellow citizens and politicians can bring change.

RooCreate is hoping to lead the way in effective design and manufacture by saying NO to single-use plastic and ensuring that all packaging is biodegradable and will not harm wildlife or the environment.

Why reusable shopping bags make sense

Around the world single-use plastic bags – the ones you’d know from grocery stores, clothes shops and department stores – are going away. A relic of the throw-away culture that the world is rapidly leaving behind, there are still something like 150 million single-use bags chucked in the garbage each year in Australia alone.

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