The Great Pacific Garbage Patch – Oceanic Debris

February 3, 2020


An estuary seahorse in the polluted waters near Sumabawa Besar, Indonesia (National Geographic, 2017).

Scrolling through the internet, you’ve likely seen the photo of a tiny seahorse with its tail curled around a plastic cotton swab. The reality of this disheartening image highlights a larger issue; one linked to an area in the ocean called The Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP) is a spiraling vortex of displaced rubbish located in the North Pacific Ocean. Debris is carried by currents that congregate in three parts of the ocean; the Western Garbage Patch, the Eastern Garbage Patch, and the Subtropical Convergence Zone. The actual measure of debris is impossible to determine, but estimates place the landmass of the GPGP at around 1.6 million square kilometers, ranging in depth from a few centimeters to several meters (NOAA, 2019). For comparison, that’s almost as large as Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba combined (World Atlas, 2019)!

Images illustrating location of the GPGP masses (NOAA, 2019).

The name ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch’ conjures images of a floating landfill, however, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration claims the oceanic debris, “…is more like flecks of pepper floating throughout a bowl of soup”. This problem worsens below the surface as oceanographers and ecologist suggest that as much as 70% of debris sinks to the bottom of the ocean. The majority of the waste originates from North American and Asian fisheries, large cargo ships, and offshore oil rig operations (National Geographic, 2017). Consumed and discarded goods account for the rest and, even if you live on the prairies, could end up in the GPGP if incorrectly discarded – after all, all rivers lead to the sea. Sadly, because of the GPGP’s extensive magnitude and distance from all coastlines, no countries have taken full responsibility for the funding of its cleanup (NOAA, 2019).

Floating debris within the Eastern GPGP (NOAA, 2019).

One of the biggest problems floating among the garbage are microplastics. Microplastics are ubiquitous in the environment and their impact on aquatic life is actively researched. These are pieces of plastic smaller than 5 mm in size and are derived from washing fleece fabric, plastic microbeads in hygiene products, or incorrect waste disposal practices of toothbrushes, toys, disposable lighters, etc. Microplastics are found suspended throughout the water column at a depth of a few centimeters to several feet. Environmental and health problems have been linked to the photodegradation of these plastics as they leach out harmful colourants and chemicals into the water over time. (NOAA, 2019).

Plastic items collected during a cleanup of the Eastern GPGP (NOAA, 2019).

With so much trash swirling about the ocean, cleaning it all up seems like an impossible undertaking, but it’s not all doom and gloom! Private companies have begun with small cleanups of the GPGP, however, scientists are convinced that the most effective way to combat the ocean waste problem is prevention. As a consumer there are many ways you can help. Switch to reusable options and use less single-use disposable items including plastic lined coffee cups, disposable straws, takeout containers, and grocery bags. If you do use these items, make sure to dispose of them appropriately – toss them into a garbage receptacle, not the ditch. Be selective when purchasing items and choose products with reduced packaging. Help out your community by taking part in coastline, riverside, or community cleanups to reduce litter accidentally making its way into our waterways. Finally, support businesses that care about and support this cause or donate yourself!

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Sources

National Geographic. 2017. The heartbreaking reality of our ocean. Access at:https://www.nationalgeographic.com/photography/proof/2017/09/seahorse-ocean-pollution/. Access on: 8 January 2019.

NOAA. July 2019. How big is the great pacific garbage patch? Science vs myth. Accessed at: https://response.restoration.noaa.gov/about/media/how-big-great-pacific-garbage-patch-science-vs-myth.html. Accessed on: 7 January 2019.

World Atlas. 2019. The largest and smallest Canadian provinces/territories by area. Accessed at: https://www.worldatlas.com/articles/the-largest-and-smallest-canadian-provinces-territories-by-area.html. Accessed on: 7 January 2019.

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