Annie Li ’18
The Pacific Trash Vortex, or the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, can be found in the central North Pacific Ocean. Discovered by Charles Moore when he was sailing from Hawaii from California when he found his boat surrounded by industrial waste.
This turned out to be aggregated debris consisting mostly of plastic. Later discovered to be part of the Western Garbage Patch, located near Japan, and the Eastern Garbage Patch, located near Hawaii, these patches are held together by the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, which draws debris into its center.
Because they are made with plastics, the patches are non-biodegradable. Photodegrdation tears the garbage into continuously smaller pieces, yet small microplastics remain.
Microplastics are so small that they are invisible to the naked eye, and may show up on satellite images only as a cloudy patch in the water.
So, what are the effects of the vortex? While the floating debris may only indirect affect humans, it has marred local marine life.
Plastics both leach out and absorb harmful pollutants. As plastics break down through photodegradation, they leach out colorants and chemicals, such as bisphenol A (BPA), that have been linked to environmental and health problems. Conversely, plastics can also absorb pollutants, such as PCBs, from the seawater. These chemicals can then enter the food chain when consumed by marine life.
For example, albatrosses often mistaken plastic resin pellets for fish eggs, and feed them to their chicks. The chicks then die either of starvation, or a ruptured organ.
In addition, “ghost fishing” occurs more often in these areas. This is when seals and other marine mammals get trapped and tangled in abandoned plastic fishing nets, and drown.
The trash can also block sunlight from reaching underwater autotrophs such as plankton and algae, who use energy from the sun to combine carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen to produce energy. without sunlight, these autotrophs will soon die out, sending ripples down the food chain.
In one square kilometer of the garbage patch, there is up to 750,000 grams of microplastic. Using this measurement,there are approximately 1.9 million bits of marine debris per square mile. However, the amount of trash that makes up the entire Great Pacific Garbage Patch is currently unknown, as it is too large to measure accurately. Denser plastics (seventy percent of the overall) sink under the surface, making the trash vortex very hard to measure.
Cleaning up this garbage vortex will continue to be a challenge. Charles Moore claims that if any country were to clean it up, they would become bankrupt. As estimated by the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration’s Marine Debris Program, 67 ships in one year can barely clean up one percent of the garbage.
Many scientists have agreed that the best way to clean up the Pacific Trash Vortex, would be to use less of, or eliminate the use of plastics, and increase the use of biodegradable resources.
Mr. John Cunningham, a biology teacher at Brooklyn Technical High School, says that the vortex contains “too much plastic” to be cleaned so humans should “find a way to use the plastic” in the ocean.
The Plastic Pollution Coalition is among one of the many organizations that are using social media and direct action campaigns to aid people and businesses who wish to change their usage of toxic and disposable plastics into biodegradable or reusable materials. Despite being seemingly impossible to clean up, many people around the world are trying their best to stop the increase of the plastics in the ocean.