To understand the magnitude of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, it is important to understand how and why it got there. It all starts with gyres. There are five major ocean gyres, North Pacific, South Pacific, North Atlantic, South Atlantic and the Indian Ocean gyres.
What is a gyre?
A gyre is a large circular current formed by wind patterns and forces from Earth’s rotation. What do gyres have to do with the Great Pacific Garbage Patch? Well, the gyres are in constant motion, a constant giant circular motion. This circular motion draws in debris and traps it, in its calm stable centre. Any floating garbage debris in the ocean will eventually find itself being brought in and trapped in one of these gyres. Now remember that not all garbage floats, and unfortunately 70% of marine debris will sink to the bottom of our ocean.
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch (a.k.a. GPGP)
The entire Great Pacific Garbage Patch is located in the North Pacific Gyre. Many of the debris accumulates because it is not biodegradable. Most plastics simply break down into smaller pieces, and the GPGP is mainly made up of micro plastics. These microplastics are so tiny, that you can’t always see them with the naked eye. Instead, if you were to find yourself staring into the ocean at the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, it may seem that the water is murky or cloudy, like soup. In this patch however, it is not uncommon to find larger debris such as fishing gear and shoes mixed up with the smaller garbage and micro plastics.
Who found The Great Pacific Garbage Patch?
You are probably wondering who found the GPGP especially because it is not a giant patch of garbage floating around like an island like most people believe, especially with 70% of the garbage sinking to the bottom of the ocean.
So on the way back to our home port in Long Beach, California, we decided to take a shortcut through the gyre, which few seafarers ever cross. Fishermen shun it because its waters lack the nutrients to support an abundant catch. Sailors dodge it because it lacks the wind to propel their sailboats. Yet as I gazed from the deck at the surface of what ought to have been a pristine ocean, I was confronted, as far as the eye could see, with the sight of plastic. It seemed unbelievable, but I never found a clear spot. In the week it took to cross the subtropical high, no matter what time of day I looked, plastic debris was floating everywhere: bottles, bottle caps, wrappers, fragments. Months later, after I discussed what I had seen with the oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer, perhaps the world’s leading expert on flotsam, he began referring to the area as the ‘eastern garbage patch’.
Capt. Charles Moore, discoverer of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, in an article for Natural History magazine in 2003
Where does this debris and garbage come from?
Approximately 80% of the garbage is generated from land. It takes one year for garbage generated from Japan and other Asian countries to reach the GPGP, while trash from North America takes about six years. The other 20% is created from off shore oil rigs, boaters, and large ships hauling cargo. It is not uncommon for cargo ships to lose debris in rough seas, or deliberately dump debris directly into the ocean. The fishing industry contributes 705 000 tons of fishing net to the GPGP. Computer monitors and LEGOs are not as common, but can also be found from shipping containers that have been dropped.
Plastic makes up the majority of the debris. Why?
With durability and affordability on its side, plastic are the primary source of trash in the GPGP. Plastics are widely used in both consumer and industrial products. Plastics durability also means that plastic doesn’t break down into nothing as it is not biodegradable, instead it gets broken down into smaller pieces of plastic.
One of the most common plastics colours removed from ocean plastics is red. Red is very attractive to birds. One of which is the Albatrosses. They mistake these small plastics as fish eggs and not only feed on them, but give them to their baby chicks. This can cause starvation as well as ruptured organs.
Ghost fishing is a result of discarded fishing nets. Whales, seals and other marine mammals are at risk of drowning after getting entangled in these abandoned nets.
Clean up efforts
There are many individuals and organization currently studying how to prevent more garbage entering these 5 gyres, as well as committed to cleaning it up.
Visit these websites to see how you can help and support these missions.
Charles Moore (GPGP Discoverer) – Marine Research Foundation
David de Rothschild - Adventure Ecology
Boyan Slat – The Ocean Clean Up
Feel free to contact Orca Scuba for dive courses and packages.