The Pacific Garbage Patch, or simply the Patch, is, by now, a household name, the climate bogeyman, a beast of biblical proportions — like an ark, but built (or so you think) from bottles and toothbrushes, and supporting mostly nebulous and parasitic life forms. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
History of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch
In 1997, on his way home from competing in the Transpacific Yacht Race, yachtsman Charles Moore sailed through a film of plastic debris on his way home to Los Angeles. The accumulation of human-made waste, infamously dubbed ‘twice the size of Texas’, was first named by an oceanographer from Seattle, Curtis Ebbesmeyer, who previously tracked the course of a consignment of 29,000 Friendly Floatees — rubber ducks, beavers, turtles and frogs — as they drifted through the Pacific, having been thrown overboard in a squall.
For 15 years, the Patch’s multifarious identities proliferated. It took root in the public consciousness. Recently, Al Gore was given honorary citizenship of Trash Isles, a cumulus ‘emerging nation’, floating somewhere between California and Hawaii — i.e., the Patch.
[Note: the word ‘Patch’ is, I’m afraid, misleading. Patch connotes island, which is something we can picture, and destroy. More on this later. In short, they are not so much patches as nebulas. I will, however, keep referring to it as the Patch, because it’s convenient, non-acronymic shorthand, and sounds cool.]
The Ocean Cleanup project – a source of hope
Then, The Ocean Cleanup was born. Founded in 2013, the project aims to clean plastic debris from the world’s oceans, and minimise the release of plastic waste into the oceans via rivers, with methods ranging from the deployment of passive ocean cleanup systems to so-called Interceptors.
Rubbish from rivers, as well as battered container ships, accumulates in gyres, large circular currents that twine the oceans of the globe. Objects migrate to specific zones, the confluence of currents, or tip-off points, and get stuck there. While the Patch is arguably the most nefarious of these cul-de-sacs, there are in fact at least five in total, the results of gyres in the Indian (1), Atlantic (2) and Pacific (2) oceans.
The most commonly circulated images of the (Pacific) Patch — popular because they present something tangible, provocative and shareable — are of piles of bottles and fishing nets. But the reality is a little different.
What is the Patch actually made of?
Short answer: microplastics. Comprising 94% of the 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic in the patch is a smog of microplastic particles. The most delightful thing to not think about, these bits of eroded, softened plastic come in inconceivably large numbers, and are toxic to marine life.
Microplastics are the devil. You’ve heard of them. They’re small— smaller than a pencil eraser. They’re hard to pick up — especially without killing loads of fish. They also make patches such as this hard to quantify or measure.
The majority of the rest, or an estimated 46% of the overall mass, is fishing nets. Much of the remainder is fishing industry gear — traps, baskets, crates, etc. It is not the plastic bottles you read about in the headlines; nor is it bubble wrap, or toothbrushes. It’s fishing gear, abandoned and swept out to sea. Discarded nets strangle, suffocate and injure as many as 100,000 marine animals per year. They also transport species from one place to another. Non-native invasive species can disrupt fragile ecosystems by outcompeting or overcrowding native species.
So there are fishing objects and microplastics and nets and bottles and toothbrushes, and they inhabit an area that is or is not twice the size of Texas. But The Ocean Cleanup says they can reduce it by ½ every year, so what do we have to worry about?
It’s a lot worse than you thought
The reality of ocean pollution is more insidious. The United Nations Environment Programme reports that as much as 70% of marine litter sinks — which stinks. So the ocean bed is home to more than double that which is already largely invisible from the water’s surface.
Moreover, according to a study published in Nature, plastic pollution within the Patch is increasing exponentially, which means immediate action is essential.
To run with a relatable, domestic metaphor: the drain is blocked, the tap is on full, and the puddle on the floor is increasing in size, faster and faster every minute. What’s the first step when dealing with an overflowing sink?
Turn off the tap
Perhaps the most alarming statistics have to do with global plastic production. To take this as a starting point is to truly understand the scale of the problem. Globally, producers churn out 300 million tons of plastic every year. Of this, half is for single-use purposes.
8 million tons of plastic makes its way into the oceans each year. Already, the ocean contains up to 165 million tons of plastic — which, as Business Insider loves to point out, 25 times heavier than the Great Pyramid of Giza.
By contrast, the Patch contains an estimated 80,000 tons of plastic, a mere 1% of annual global ocean-bound plastic waste. So the puddle is getting bigger, bigger and bigger every minute, and the tap is spewing out one hundred times the volume of the puddle every year.
Conclusion: any measures put in place to filter plastics from the ocean should be multiplied a hundredfold, and redirected towards reducing the plastic that is bound for the oceans in the first place.
The Pacific Garbage Patch really is a bogeyman — a sort of amorphous, ugly, life-asphyxiating scapegoat-metaphor we use to effectively package the plastics issue into something digestible. By fixating ourselves on this titanic pile of netting, and shrouding it in mythos, we conceive of the problem as something both fixable and eternal, as if its presence is a requisite truth.
- 2.5 billion people rely on fish for 20% of their animal protein. Polluted oceans means polluted fisheries, which means polluted us.
- By 2050, scientists estimate, there could be as much plastic as there are fish in the ocean. Plastic is literally designed to defeat natural decay. It is both our trump card and our downfall.
- 99% of ocean-dwelling plastic waste is unaccounted for. The island is unseen.
- Plastic chokes the ocean’s ability to trap CO2, thereby exacerbating global heating.
Is there room for hope?
An estimated three quarters of the Patch’s mass is carried by debris larger than 5cm. This means it can be feasibly, mechanically removed. (Microplastics require more complex filtration systems, which are far more likely to result in collateral by-catch.)
More hope is to be found in the Ocean Cleanup’s interception systems which, when strategically placed in 1000 river locations around the world, should prevent a portion of ocean-bound plastics from ever reaching the sea.
What can we do as consumers/voters to help reduce the Pacific Garbage Patch?
- Avoid high-density polyethylene. This stuff makes soap bottles, toothbrushes, many consumer goods that float in the ‘garbage patch’, and elsewhere. Choose Lush, or Ethique, or any of the proliferation of ethical cosmetics companies. Try shampoo bars, rock salt deodorant, bamboo toothbrushes, all that jazz — see if it works for you. Or, hell, don’t wash.
- Shop at wet markets, or simply do not use single-use plastic bags some supermarkets use to wrap fruit and veg.
- Buy local, Soil Association certified, organic, etc.
- Carry a tote bag for food shopping/groceries, and a refillable, washable water bottle.
- Vote for the party with the greenest policies.
“Coming together is the beginning. Keeping together is progress. Working together is success”Unknown
This article also appears on Medium, along with several others to do with the environment and politics.
For more environment-based articles (including itineraries and restaurant recommendations), head over to the Sri Lanka and Philippines archives, or to Features to catch my latest research pieces.