April 24, 2023

Everything you need to know about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch

Humans have relied on the oceans for thousands of years. They have provided us with food, trade and travel, and are a crucial part of our development and survival. The ocean's abundance of biodiversity is also critical to all three pillars of sustainable development; economic, social and environmental. A healthy ocean, and the marine ecosystems within, support a healthy planet…

…So it’s no surprise that the decline of our oceans through overfishing and the huge amounts of waste that’s dumped into it every day is one of the most obvious manifestations of the climate emergency. Consumers are becoming more aware of micro-plastics—but there’s another huge elephant in the room: the Great Pacific Garbage Patch—and what it means for the deep sea. And it’s exactly as bad as it sounds. So take a deep breath and read on! 

What makes the oceans so important for human survival?

Humans and the oceans are inextricably linked. The ocean is a vital food source for millions of people, and contains compounds that have been used to develop life-saving medicines. Fish and other seafood provide an important source of protein, vitamins and minerals that are essential to human health. 

The fishing industry is a major source of employment and income for many communities around the world. However, overfishing and irresponsible fishing practices such as trawling the seafloor are destroying habitats, coral reefs, and marine populations; upsetting the life-giving balance of biodiversity in our oceans.

Ship in the ocean

Beyond fishing, marine ecosystems provide crucial services to coastal communities. Mangrove ecosystems offer an important source of food for millions of people, and help protect against extreme weather events. The oceans also have great cultural significance to the world’s indigenous communities, who are now facing their own displacement and possible extinction as a result of climate change and habitat loss.

But as much as we need the oceans for our survival, the oceans have paid the price for human intervention. Overfishing and climate change are only two of the major problems facing ocean biodiversity today, along with the enormous impact plastic waste is having on marine ecosystems.

Why is plastic waste so bad for marine life… and humans?

It is estimated that 1.15 to 2.41 metric tons of plastic are dumped in the ocean each year. The problem with plastic waste is that it does not break down or biodegrade like wood or other natural materials—it can take anywhere from 20 to 500 years to decompose. 

Plastic is a synthetic or semi-synthetic compound developed in the 1950s. Its flexibility, mouldability and durability has led to its widespread use—but the consequences of that durability are now evident in both landfill and oceans. 

Plastic buildup in the ocean

It’s likely you’ve seen the footage of sea turtles with plastic straws lodged in their nostrils, or fish being cut open to reveal a plethora of waste lining their stomachs. Even at a microscopic level plastic is working its way into our food sources. As plastics eventually begin to break down they get smaller and smaller until they form into microplastics which swirl around in the ocean and sink to the sea floor. These then work their way into the food chain through fishing and seafood, and we don’t really understand how the build up of microplastics will affect people in the long run. 

Ocean plastic is one of the worst problems facing marine biodiversity. For years the ocean has been a dumping ground for our waste, and that’s becoming pretty obvious in the 1.6 million square kilometers of trash floating in the pacific ocean… called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

What’s going on with the Great Pacific Garbage Patch?

Maybe you have heard about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch through the viral 2017 Change.org campaign by NGO Plastics Oceans to “become a citizen of Trash Isle.” Its founding citizens wanted to put pressure on the UN to do something about the sheer volume of trash building up in this area of the Pacific Ocean, which at this point is three times the size of France. 

The foundation joined forces with UK-based publication LADBible to create a flag, passport, and even a currency (called “debris”)! The goal was to make Trash Isle a legitimate country, which would then compel the UN to do something about it.

But all jokes aside, the so-called Trash Isle is not so funny when we think about what it actually is—and the sheer size of it. Floating approximately between the California coast and Hawaiian islands in a region where multiple ocean currents converge creating a slow-moving, circular system called the North Pacific Gyre, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP) contains around 80,000 tons of plastic waste.

What’s more, it’s not the only one. There are in fact five massive swirling trash dumps that have accumulated in similar ways, one for each major ocean. 

What is the impact of all that plastic?

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is not a solid mass of garbage, but rather a large and dispersed collection of plastic bits, ranging in size from tiny microplastics to large objects such as discarded fishing nets and plastic bottles. Most plastic originates from land; floating in rivers to the ocean or blown in by the wind. The rest comes from oil refineries, ships and the fishing industry. The plastic pollution in the patch has a significant negative impact on marine life and the ecosystems they support—including life at the very bottom of the ocean.

There is six times more plastic in the region than plankton, the main food source for many ocean animals. Many deep sea creatures rely on plankton and other decomposed food sources that drift down from the surface—which is now saturated with plastic. 

Plastic in the great pacific garbage patch

Over the years, plastic breaks down and starts to sink down deep into the ocean. We are used to seeing images of debris floating at the surface, but the issue is having an iceberg effect on ecosystems in the deep. In fact, 70% of the pollution in our oceans lies beneath the surface. This debris mostly sinks to inaccessible depths, often threatening coral reefs and the ecosystems that they support. This is a massive problem.

What is Planet Wild doing about this?

At Planet Wild we are focusing our attention on animals, forests and the ocean—and in our latest mission we headed to Costa Tropical, Spain, which is home to some of the most diverse ecosystems in all of the Mediterranean Sea.

The region is overflowing with colorful marine life, various species, and vibrant corals. A look beneath the surface here will uncover octopuses, corals, fish, and so much more. Here, the coral starts in the shallows and continues far into the deep open ocean.

But this ecosystem has been in decline for decades. What used to be a marine paradise is now under stress from pollution that threatens not only the future of the reef here, but also all the life that depends on it.

Together with Coral Soul we are cleaning garbage from the deep sea off the Spanish coast. Diving to depths of up to 50m, we are supporting Coral Soul in their mission to remove as much plastic waste from this vital ecosystem. And THIS is how it went! 

Planet Wild is committed to rewilding the planet through monthly missions that work directly with grassroots organizations dedicated to fighting the biodiversity crisis. When you become a Planet Wild member, your contribution will directly fund innovative and exciting projects all over the world, so you can make a difference from home. Learn more about what we do here.

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