SANTIAGO – Massive waste “islands” have continued to form in the Pacific Ocean, and they are getting larger by the day. The biggest patch is twice the size of Chile, and is almost entirely plastic waste. In a BBC report, expert Erik van Seville also warns that “the island is also moving more than expected.”
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP) between Hawaii and California was first discovered in 1997. When it was analyzed in 2017, it was spread out over 1.6 million square kilometers and it included more than 79,000 metric tons of plastic waste. It has continued to grow at an alarming rate since then. According to National Geographic, the patch is 94% plastic waste.
Although its size and nature are impressive, it is not the only one. Four other “plastic islands” are currently drifting around the oceans, getting bigger by the day: one in the South Pacific, near Peru and Chile, two in the North – and South Atlantic, and another one in the Indian Ocean below India.
The Dangers of Plastic
The subsequent studies of the floating garbage patches alarm scientists worldwide. According to a Nature magazine scientific report, plastic waste introduced into the marine environment breaks down into smaller pieces as a result of temperature variations, marine life contact, and sun exposure.
Microplastics, however, last a very long time, and can harm marine life by killing creatures that ingest it. Humans also end up exposed to microplastics ingestion as seafood consumers. “We are basically poisoning our own food,” Ocean Cleanup Foundation spokesman Joost Dubois told Reuters.
Plastic is a petroleum-based product, a material that takes a long time to break down. Some items of the patch have been found in one piece after 40 years of “degradation,” according to Reuters.
The slow speed of decomposition combined with an average global annual consumption of 320 million tons of plastic, “more plastic produced than ever before,” according to the above Nature report, makes for an ongoing disaster.
The same report also concluded that pollution is apparently concentrating in the center of the garbage patch, which is still an overall unexplored area. This means it is possible that chemical contamination by the patches might also be a danger to ocean ecosystems.
Nature also warns that the biggest patch in North Pacific waters is experiencing seasonal displacement, moving southwards and eastwards during summer and winter.
How Did They Form?
When plastic ends up in the ocean, two things can happen. Waste can either end up drifting by shore, or transported offshore by gyrating currents that drag the waste out to deep water. If the latter happens, the plastic is more likely to get caught up in a patch with other plastic debris.
The GPGP was the first garbage patch to be popularized in 1997 by sailor Charles Moore, who followed a plastic bottle trace back to the gigantic patch in the middle of the North Pacific Ocean.
But after the existence of such phenomenon was reported, at least five other patches have been discovered in the Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian Ocean.
According to the BBC, the GPGP is the biggest of the six, although there have been only limited investigations about the other four. The news outlet reports that at least 20% of the patch’s mass could be a consequence of the Japanese tsunami of 2011, which washed tremendous amounts of waste out to sea.
In 2018, National Geographic performed an extensive study on the patch, approximating its density and components, 79,000 metric tons and 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic waste. Stated another way, that’s enough to fill up 500 jumbo jets.
A relatively recent KQED Science article aptly and vividly described the GPGP: “Imagine a giant aquatic vortex between Hawaii and California where converging ocean currents stir a toxic soup of discarded fishing nets, bottles, ropes, toilet seats, toothbrushes, bottle caps, bags and microplastics smaller than your pinky nail. … [¶] You could sail right through it without noticing that you are in the midst of almost 2 trillion pieces of plastics churning between the surface and the bottom of the ocean. Most people can’t perceive how big it really is.“
We struggle with analogies to describe it—”islands” and “garbage patches” are evocative but don’t exactly convey the reality or perniciousness of the pollution: “People picture a landfill or a dump floating out in the middle of the ocean. That is just not accurate,” Kara Lavender Law of the Sea Education Association told KQED Science. “Think of it more as an accumulation of little things—a balloon, a red rubber flip-flop, a coffee can—far from where they belong.”
On his own website, Moore says it “should be more accurately described as ‘The Eastern Pacific Trash Vortex.’ “
Getting Rid of the Patches
In a BBC report, Moore says plastic “will never be the enemy … It has too many uses.” He instead suggests more aggressive reuse, recycling, and cleaning efforts internationally. “Beach clean-ups are very efficient ways to clean up the ocean,” He says.
As Lavender Law pointed out in the KQED Science article, “It’s easier to collect a floating bottle in the harbor than it is—some number of years later—to try to pick up 5,000 pieces of broken bottles, distributed over hundreds of square kilometers in the middle of the ocean.”
The Ocean Cleanup Foundation is an NGO specifically dedicated to tackling plastic waste problems in the ocean. The Foundation has raised several initiatives and ideas to mitigate the effects of garbage patches, like massive, long floating booms to keep the patches cornered, which create an artificial coastline to prevent waste from scattering away from them. They have also installed large nets in strategic ocean zones, where natural currents and winds drag waste right into the net.
Laurent Lebreton, main author of the Ocean Cleanup Foundation studies about the patches, told BBC “we cannot get rid of plastics. They are useful in medicine, transport, and construction. But we must change the way in which we use them, especially single use plastics, which have a very short life.”
Camila Huecho is a journalism student at Universidad de La Frontera in Temuco, currently interning at Chile Today. As a freelance illustrator and Fellow at the Melton Foundation, she works to bring information and cultures together through communications and art.