If you decide to take a trip from Hawaii to Vancouver by boat, you will be met with an obstacle. This obstacle is around 57 times larger than Hawaii and made entirely of rubbish. In this article, we’ll be looking in detail at the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP).
Before we begin, let’s clear up a common misconception about the patch. Many people picture marine garbage patches as floating islands of solid waste, like giant rafts in the ocean. In reality, you can sail through parts of the patch without seeing any debris at all! If you go to the GPGP, do not expect to be able to walk around on it.
There is an incredibly large amount of rubbish in the patch, but the ocean is also incredibly large. Plus, many of the bits of plastic are small and transparent, making them hard to see. Another common misconception is that the patch can be viewed from space. In this post, we’ll be taking a deep look at the world’s largest rubbish heap.
How Much Rubbish is Actually Floating in the Patch?
It is very difficult to say, but some estimates put the number at around 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic. Together, these plastics are estimated to weigh about 80,000 tonnes. That is about the same weight as 8 Eiffel Towers, or 750 blue whales!
One of the reasons it is so hard to quantify how much plastic is in there is that there is no clear delineation of where the patch ends. Even at the outer reaches of the gyre, there is still plastic. It is simply a question of whether the plastic is dense enough that it still counts as part of the patch.
The Ocean Cleanup, a non-profit organisation who are trying to clean up the patch, claim on their website that if the less dense regions on the outskirts of the patch were counted too, then the total weight of plastics would be closer to 100,000 tonnes!
What Exactly is the GPGP Made Of?
Again, this is a tricky question to answer. The patch is so large that it is difficult to take samples from it in a way that is representative of the whole area. That is not surprising, considering that the patch is 19 times larger than the island of Ireland. However, we have some idea of what is in there.
It has been estimated that around half of the plastic debris in the patch is made up of fishing gear. This is somewhat surprising, given that it seems that fishing gear only makes up 10% of the plastic debris in the ocean as a whole. Part of the reason for this is that fishing gear is generally large, making it more likely to be sucked into the gyre. That also means that these plastics will make up a larger proportion of the weight when compared to smaller plastic pieces.
The same does not hold true of the number of pieces of plastic. Of the around 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic in the patch, 94% are estimated to be microplastics. Microplastics are any pieces of plastic that are 5 millimeters or less in length. For context, that is about the same size as a sesame seed. While half of the weight of the patch is fishing gear, then, the majority of the pieces of plastic are too small to see when you sail through the patch.
What Can be Done About It?
Remember the Ocean Cleanup? This incredible non-profit has been working for years on the problem of how to remove the plastics from the patch on a large scale. The organisation was founded in 2013 by inventor and entrepreneur Boyan Slat when he was just 19 years old.
The Ocean Cleanup has recently started collecting plastic from the patch using a gigantic machine which they have nicknamed ‘Jenny’. Jenny is a huge, U-shaped device that is dragged behind two boats. The shape of the machine concentrates the plastic floating on the surface of the water then forces it into what is called the ‘retention zone’ at the back.
This incredible mechanism is constantly being redesigned and tested, and the results look more promising every day. Amazingly, the Ocean Cleanup has set themselves the goal of removing 90% of all floating plastics in the ocean by 2040!
So, what can you do personally? Well, the main thing is to reduce your plastic use and stop the problem at the source. The patch is accumulating plastic at an alarming rate, making it all the more difficult to clean it up. Another great way to help is to support the Ocean Cleanup in their great work.
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is one of several gyres which trap and accumulate ocean plastic. It is the best-known because it is the largest, but it will be vital to clean up every single one if we are to save the incredible wildlife that calls the sea their home.
Our oceans currently face a triple-threat of human-caused catastrophes. Overfishing, plastic pollution and ocean acidification would each by themselves be a huge challenge to overcome. Together, they spell disaster for millions of sea creatures. This, in turn, will have an effect on climate change as well as human food security.
Reducing plastic pollution at the source is no longer just for environmentalist hippies. It has become absolutely necessary for everyone to play their part if we are to avoid patches like the GPGP taking over our oceans. Why not start today?