The Pacific Garbage Island

Oct 3, 2018 | Science

The oceans play a major role on nearly all parts of the Earth. The atmosphere, ecosystems, physical appearance, and food chains are all affected by the Earth’s oceans. According to the National Ocean Service, the ocean covers 70% of the Earth’s surface. They transport heat from from the equator to the poles, produce over half the world’s oxygen, provide a route for 76% of US trade, and produce $282 billion in goods and services in the US. Besides these major effects, the ocean also provides recreation, food, and medication. However, despite the numerous benefits the ocean provides to human beings and just the Earth’s functioning in general, the oceans are being polluted and ignored. The practice of littering is leading to a mass influx of plastics into the world’s oceans. This threatens the ecological services humans have come to rely upon as well as marine life that depends on the ocean as their habitat.

Laurent Lebreton, an oceanographer at The Ocean Cleanup, a foundation that develops technologies to extract plastic pollutants from the ocean and prevent further polluting, estimates that 1.15 to 2.41 tons of plastic enter the ocean each year. The plastic enters the water stream through rivers. Litter often gets blown into the rivers that filter into the ocean; they release the water, along with the pollutants floating in it, into the ocean. The major concern with litter debris is in stronger, more buoyant plastics that are resilient enough to be transported long distances, from the river into the center of the oceans. Here, gyres spin, trapping plastic in a continuous circle.

While plastic floating separately is a serious environmental and health concern, the ocean’s rotating gyres create much more of a potent hazard. Wind currents and the Earth’s rotation combine to form gyres, circular currents the ocean flows in. Once the plastic infested waters become a part of the ocean gyres, the garbage accumulates until waters in that gyre are highly concentrated with tossed garbage. The size of this heavily concentrated body of water is massive. The Ocean Cleanup scientists predict the size to be 1.6 million square kilometers, or twice the size of Texas and three times the size of France.  Once the plastics enter the gyre, they are not likely to leave until the sun and other natural erosion factors degrade it into smaller microplastics.

While this mass accumulation is called an island, the waters aren’t so littered that they form a solid body of land made of plastic. Instead, the plastic is dispersed among the top layer of the water. However, the plastic is so condensed that it is ruining the ecosystem of the Pacific Ocean. According to Julie Raynaud for the United Nations Environment Programme, 700 species have encountered debris, 92% of which was plastic. Besides the marine life simply not being able to ingest the debris, this is especially dangerous as 84% of this plastic was found to have Persistent Bioaccumulative Toxic chemicals. Marine life ingesting these toxic chemicals severely affects their health.  The species most dramatically affected are those considered surface feeders, as plastic debris generally stays on the surface levels of the ocean. For instance, sea turtles captured near the garbage patch have up to 74% of their diet composed of plastics.

The oceans are a world unto themselves. They are not only a home to many marine species, but a positive investment for the United States and other countries to preserve. However, an influx in the practice of littering has created a Pacific Ocean so polluted with plastics a garbage “island” has been created. Without a conscious decrease in littering on the part of every citizen of the Earth, our oceans are in serious danger.

Shelby Beck


Story by: Shelby Beck, 17