Out of Sight Shouldn’t Mean Out of Mind

Jillian Courtney, Features Editor

It’s no surprise to anyone that the world has changed drastically with the advancement of technology in the past century. Humans have discovered new materials that are more durable and are cost effective, the most popular being plastic. It should also be no surprise that this advancement has had major impacts on the environment and we play a part of it past just producing these materials.

Plastic is an artificial substance made of chemicals that are man-made, meaning that it is not biodegradable. It is also used in everything, from plastic bags to large shipping containers and makes up for a large majority of all pollution across the globe. Landfills are bursting with plastic and other pollution, but what about the landfills we can’t see? The world’s largest dumping ground isn’t on land, rather it is located in the North Pacific Ocean.

The currents in the ocean push garbage around until the meet and form what is called a gyre. These gyres are large sections that swirl in circles, holding garbage in one place. At the top of the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, a place where warm water from the South and cold water from the North meet, sits the North Pacific Subtropical Convergence Zone, otherwise known as the North Pacific Garbage Patch.

The patch has also been referred to as ‘garbage island’, and has been estimated to be even larger than the state of Texas. However, it isn’t an island at all. The garbage floating in the North Pacific is made up of smaller garbage islands that may be hiding deep underwater or spread out over a large area which makes it impossible to measure.
“We could just go out there and just scoop up an island,” Holly Bamford, director of the Military Officer’s Association’s Marine Debris Program, told Mother Nature Network. “If it was just one big mass, it would make our jobs a whole lot easier.”

The patch is made of mainly plastic, 80 per cent of which comes from the land, 10 per cent which comes from free floating fishing nets and the rest from recreational boaters. It can take a few years before the plastic reaches the patch depending where it comes from. The reason it is made of mainly plastic goes back to the idea that plastic doesn’t break down. Paper and other products would dissolve long before they reached the patch, while plastic would just continue to break down into smaller pieces.

The plastic never really goes away, as proven by the massive rubber duck spill in 1992. A ship carrying a container filled with 28,000 rubber ducks accidentally dropped the cargo into the ocean near the North Pacific Garbage Patch. The container broke open, releasing the little yellow monsters into the currents, many of which are still showing up on beaches today, almost 20 years later.

This has major implications for the wildlife in the area as well as for humans, and the threat only grows greater as similar garbage patches are found in all other oceans. Photodegradation breaks down the plastics into smaller pieces which thicken the water. The chemicals in the plastic can leach into the surrounding water spelling out health concerns for mammals and people as well. These pieces can also absorb pre-existing chemicals in the water, which in small numbers is harmless, but when highly concentrated are toxic to the animals that ingest them.

This patch and photodegradation have contributed to the deaths of around one million birds and animals. Many albatross corpses liter beaches, and, when cut open, a majority of their stomach contents contain plastic. But it’s not just in animal stomachs that the impact can be seen. The beaches of the 19 islands of the Hawaii archipelago have been littered with garbage that has been ejected from the patch. Despite clean-up efforts by volunteers in these regions, many of these beaches remain littered, some buried by five to 10 feet of garbage.

Captain Charles Moore, discoverer of the North Pacific Garbage Patch, said that clean up would “bankrupt any country and kill any wildlife in the net as it went.” It is not an overnight process, and international treaties and cooperation would be needed to make a real impact on the situation. But it would take more than promising to not dump our garbage into the ocean; it would take promising to decrease our reliance on plastics in our everyday lives and getting large numbers of people to commit to trying to clean up our land so our ocean can stand a chance.

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