If you’ve heard of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, then you’re probably just as freaked out as we are.
by Emily Mary Chin, Carrybeans
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is located in the North Pacific Ocean and is the largest of five ocean gyres. Gyres form when cold currents from the polars and warm currents from the equator meet. The intersection of the two forms a vortex-like spiral, pulling all surrounding trash into its core.
A common misconception about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is that it is an island of trash. Some even believe that you can see it visibly from space. However, in reality, the garbage patch more so resembles a kind of murky soup with only some scatterings of plastic items floating about. The murky soup is mostly made up of microplastics, which are bits of plastic broken down into sizes of 5mm or less.
There are five ocean gyres worldwide, with the North Pacific gyre being the largest of them all, with the largest garbage patch as well
Plastic waste represents about 90% of all trash that ends up in the ocean. And here at the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, plastic waste accumulates from all over the world. Many believe it to be the largest landfill in the world—ironic, considering it is nowhere near land.
The Ocean Cleanup recently conducted a survey to find out the true extent of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Their findings show the area of the garbage patch to span nearly 1.6 million square kilometers, making it about five times the size of Malaysia!
The fact that such a wide area of pollution has been accumulating for so long without us noticing is a hard fact to swallow. We’ve been using the ‘out of sight, out of mind’ approach to our trash, never stopping to think about where it may end up eventually.
The mass of the plastic waste accumulated at the garbage patch was found to weigh around 80,000 tonnes, equivalent to that of eight Eiffel towers. Such comparisons are shocking and surreal to imagine. But if you know how long that patch has been accumulating for, it would no longer surprise you.
A survey group conducted an ocean surface trawl in 2015 to collect plastic waste within the gyre. Out of that process, 50 items were found to have still readable production dates. The items in question were labelled with dates ranging from the 1970s to now. This is a clear indicator that the garbage patch has been accumulating for nearly five decades, at least.
With five decades of plastic already accumulated and more plastic continuously finding its way there everyday, scientists are starting to lose hope in the possibility of its reversibility. Microplastics are inherently difficult to dredge out, due to their size and nature.
Plastic takes upwards of 1,000 years to decompose and unless dealt with, the world will soon be filled with more plastic than mankind. The Ocean Cleanup is planning an expedition to clear out some of the plastic. They hope to clean half of the garbage patch up within the next five years.
But environmental conservation is not just the job of scientists, activists, you, or me. We all have to chip in and do our part, and it doesn’t have to be in a large-scale way. There are everyday ways for us to reduce our plastic waste consumption that can help the situation.
Say no to plastic bags and bring your own reusable shopping bag instead. Invest in a steel straw so you don’t need single use straws. Avoid using polystyrene packaging by carrying your own container. There are everyday things that we all can do to greatly reduce our plastic usage. It’s all about creating a habit.
Admittedly, living a sustainable lifestyle is not the most convenient way to live. It can even be a little tedious. But mankind choosing convenience over sustainability is what has got the Great Pacific Garbage Patch—and the rest of the planet—looking like what it is today.
So maybe it’s about time we deprioritise our own convenience, our own short-term self interest, and start thinking about the world instead. Now, before it really is too late.