The Great Pacific Garbage Patch and its impact on marine ecology


Flickr: Paolo Margari

Can you imagine a landfill twice the size of Texas, filled with plastic bottles, a motorbike, discarded junk, toothbrushes, pieces of polystyrene packaging and styrofoam cups?

If so, take that image and imagine the rubbish is floating in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and, apparently, that will give you an idea of the scale of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, more formally known as the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre (NPSG). Of course, there are many NPSG deniers who say that the amount of rubbish is not as big as claimed to be.

But, what’s worrying is that a new report has found the amount of plastic rubbish found in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch has increased 100 times in the last 40 years, heavily impacting the marine environment.

Original version is Image:Oceanic gyres.png. T...


Water Strider – Flickr: Lynette S.

For many years the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a swirling mass of discarded plastic and waste which stretches across a vast patch of the ocean, has been of great concern to scientists and environmentalists worried about its effects on marine life. This discarded waste that finds its way into the landfill in the Pacific Ocean is then swept into the North Pacific Subtropical Convergence Zone, with the help of circulating ocean currents known as a gyre.

Scientists from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego discovered that insects called “water striders” or “sea skaters” are using the rubbish as a place to lay their eggs instead of the natural flotsam, and were doing so in greater numbers than monitored before.

A paper recently published by the journal Biology Letters, demonstrates that an increase in the population of the marine insects, which typically survive on fish eggs and plankton, is thought to mean a reduction in food for fish and turtles, which target the same prey.

Miriam Goldstein, a Scripps graduate student and the Scripps Environmental Accumulation of Plastic Expedition’s (SEAPLEX’s) chief scientist said the arrival of the plastic in the sea had taken a relatively short amount of time.

“Plastic only became widespread in late ’40s and early ’50s, but now everyone uses it and over a 40-year range we’ve seen a dramatic increase in ocean plastic,” she said. “Historically we have not been very good at stopping plastic from getting into the ocean so hopefully in the future we can do better.”

This latest study by Scripps scientists comes after earlier research conducted in 2009 to the NSPG. Their research found that 9 per cent or one in ten of the fish collected during an expedition had plastic in their stomachs. Unfortunately, the rate at which the rubbish is filtering into the ocean means that clearing it up is, according to Oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer who coined the phrase ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch, is virtually impossible.

“We can’t clean it up. It’s just too big. You’d have to have the entire U.S. Navy out there, round the clock, continuously towing little nets. And it’s produced so fast, they wouldn’t be able to keep up,” he said.

His solution is to switch to using biodegradable plastic, letting the plastic in the world’s largest rubbish dump to gradually disperse.

Wind, however, is an issue that is making the appearance of the plastic seem less than it actually is, fueling deniers claims about the actual amount reported. Whenever the wind picks up it pushes the tiny speaks of plastic that break up over time below the surface, making it hard to see the full extent of the damage.

As plastic doesn’t completely biodegrade, instead only breaking down into smaller pieces until it is microscopic, these plastic remains can stay in the environment for hundreds of years. Because the wind pushes these particles below the surface it is believed that there is far more plastic in the world’s oceans than previously thought.


Of course, there are many of us who think that when it comes to the disposal of our rubbish it’s easy to think that after placing what we’ve collected into the weekly recycling box or bin, that we’ve done our part and it’s been properly dealt with.

Unfortunately, while there are many of us who do our bit to keep the environment clean of rubbish there are companies – and people too – who abuse our natural world by using it as their own dumping ground for waste, meaning that once pristine beaches and waters are becoming home to tonnes of plastic rubbish. As a consequence we are ruining the appearance of the natural world and killing thousands of wildlife who mistakenly feed on floating rubbish thought to be food.

It may be too late to clear up the mess that we’ve already created, but it’s not too late to stop more of this destructive waste from ending up in the ocean and on our beaches.


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