Updated On 11/30/2017 | Originally Published On 07/22/2016
Recently I was at the beach on a lovely stretch of the Florida Panhandle known to locals as 30A, named for the highway that traverses the string of towns between Destin and Panama City Beach. The area is known for its crystal blue waters and pristine white sand. But this year, the third time I’ve visited, I couldn’t help but notice the amount of trash amidst the shells — bottle caps, cigarette butts, broken beach toys, plastic food wrappers, and beer cans, all strewn in the sand.
While this trash was certainly marring my afternoon of beachcombing, its likely destination is even more troubling: Much of the trash strewn on our coasts will end up as part of a garbage patch, such as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch that’s amassed in the North Pacific Ocean.
These “garbage patch” collections of litter are created by currents, which push the trash across the ocean until it reaches a relatively calm area, where it gets trapped. Plastic litter, which doesn’t biodegrade, just breaks down into tinier pieces when exposed to the elements. Because plastic waste patches are so remote, it’s easy to forget they exist (indeed, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch was discovered by a racing boat captain who was cutting through a rarely-traveled part of the ocean).
Here’s what you need to know about garbage patches, and what you can do to help prevent them.
1. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch actually comprises two patches. The Eastern Garbage Patch is between Hawaii and California, and the Western Garbage Patch is between Japan and Hawaii. These two aren’t the only garbage patches in the world; both the Atlantic and Indian Oceans have garbage patches, and there are still more forming in other oceans, too.
2. About 80 percent of the litter in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch comes from activity on land in North America and Asia. Sometimes it’s easy to forget about the oceans if you don’t live near one, but the products we use and how we dispose of them in our land-based lives can — and often does — have an impact on the health of the ocean. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is made of litter that generates on the coastlines, and trash that has been swept into inland rivers and then makes its way to the sea. Once the trash reaches the North American coast, it spends about 6 years making its way toward the garbage patch; trash from Asian coastlines take about a year to get to the patch. Only 20% of the litter is generated on the water, from boaters, oil rigs, cargo ships, and the like.
3. A huge part of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch — and ocean litter in general — is plastic. It’s estimated that more than 8 million metric tons of plastic ends up in the ocean every year. According to a 2015 study, China contributes the most plastic pollution to the ocean. The United States ranked 20th, but that doesn’t let us off the hook, since US companies export a lot of plastic waste overseas, and we still send an enormous amount of plastic into the ocean from our own coasts, every year. The biggest thing you can do to help this problem is to commit to buying fewer single-use plastic products.
4. Garbage patches are extremely harmful to ocean creatures, like birds, fish, and mammals. They often mistake bits of plastic for food, and get tangled in abandoned nets. In many cases sea life cannot avoid consuming plastic particles. In turn much of those contaminants end up in our seafood.
5. While it was once believed that plastic breaks down slower in the ocean because it is kept at a cooler temperature, it turns out this isn’t the case, particularly in tropical areas where the water is 86˚F or warmer. One group of scientists discovered that some plastics can break down within just one year in ocean water, leaching BPA and a polystyrene byproduct. The former is believed to affect animals’ reproductive systems — and our own — and the latter may be a carcinogen.
6. Most people imagine garbage patches as piles of solid waste, which isn’t the case. A famous photo you may have seen illustrating articles about garbage patches — of a man paddling a canoe through a sea of garbage — is actually not a photo of a garbage patch but of Manila Harbor (which evidently has its own litter issues!).
7. In reality, garbage patches are large areas of ocean with particularly high amounts of plastic —much of it in fragments smaller than a fingernail. Some scientists have likened it to pepper and dumplings in a bowl of soup; some pieces are big, but many more are very tiny. And those tiny pieces are pervasive: Scientist Miriam Goldberg and her team have trawled a 1700 square mile for water samples and found that plastic existed in just about every sample they collected, about 0.4 pieces per cubic meter. Goldberg’s team concluded that the amount of plastic in the oceans has increased dramatically, roughly a hundred times over, since the 1970s.
8. A total clean-up of the garbage patches is a near-impossible proposition. In mid-2018, The Ocean Cleanup expects to deploy a new invention that will collect and recycle a big chunk of the larger plastic debris in our oceans over the course of a few years. And while this will prevent that bigger debris from breaking down into microplastic, there haven’t been any successful solutions for collecting the huge amount of microplastic that does exist.
9. One of the best ways to help reduce the growth of garbage patches is to reduce our use of plastic — particularly single-use plastics. Try to buy in bulk where you can fill your own containers, use reusable shopping bags or paper bags, and buy products that are packaged in boxes or paper, rather than plastic film. Finally, when you do wind up with plastic, recycle it!