The Pacific Ocean – The World’s Largest Landfill
Cape Elizabeth, Maine
2017, Middle School, Prose
Here’s a riddle: What floats in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, is over 90 feet deep, and nearly twice the size of Texas? Answer: No, it’s not some exotic, manmade island of the future. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Sitting in the middle of the Pacific Ocean is an expanse of trash. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, to be exact. Also known as the Pacific Trash Vortex, this collection of marine debris (litter that ends up in bodies of water) has gradually accumulated over the years, until today, when the expanse of garbage is slowly taking over the Pacific Ocean.
The trash has accumulated in this area due to a gyre, or a system of circular ocean currents formed by wind, and forces created by the rotation of Earth (National Geographic). The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is bound by the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre (National Geographic). So when a piece of trash enters the Pacific Ocean, whether from California, Japan, or anywhere in between, chances are it will eventually be sucked into the vortex of trash. The patch stretches from the west coast of North America all the way to Japan (National Geographic). Some say it spans over 15 million square miles, but the exact size of the garbage patch is unknown and nearly impossible to figure out. Why? Because of the currents and winds, the borders and content in the G.P.G.P are constantly moving around (NOAA). So the area of the patch one day may be just a little different from the area the next day. And now, scientists are finding that the garbage may not just be on the ocean’s surface. The trash may be actually floating to the floor of the Pacific. In fact, according to National Geographic, an estimated 70% of marine debris in the trash vortex actually sinks. This means that there could be much more trash than ever imagined. But since it is nearly impossible to explore below the surface of the G.P.G.P, we may never know how much.
Even though it sits miles from the coastline, the vortex still has been, and continues to be, created by land-based sources in North America and Asia. In fact, 80% of the buildup of trash comes from activities on land (National Geographic). When we toss a plastic bottle on the beach without a second thought, or flick a cigarette butt on the side of the road instead of simply using an ashtray, the likelihood is that our trash will somehow make its way to the ocean, where it will be spiraled into the garbage patch. Meanwhile, the other 20% of pollution comes from sources like offshore oils leaking into the water, as well as large ships that dump debris in the ocean (National Geographic). The majority of this debris, over 705,000 tons, is fishing nets (National Geographic).
But the most abundant, and perhaps the most harmful material in the G.P.G.P is plastic (National Geographic). In our natural environment, plastic is becoming more and more of a threat. That’s because, unlike other types of trash, plastic is non-biodegradable, meaning it doesn’t decompose over time. Instead, plastic photodegrades, breaking up into smaller and smaller pieces until it becomes nearly impossible to be seen with the naked eye (National Geographic), yet still extremely harmful to fish, seabirds, and other marine life. That’s also why some areas of the G.P.G.P look like almost what you’d expect of a regular ocean: The amount of plastic has broken down so much that it’s not easily visible. But that doesn’t mean it’s not there. Today, it is estimated that in the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, trash and plastics outnumber fish and plankton six to one (Clean Water Action).
How can an accumulation of waste so far away from the coast really harm us, though? In fact, it must be a good thing that so much trash is all the way out there in the ocean and not here on land, right? Wrong. Actually, the ocean is probably the worst place for all the trash to go. Why? Our oceans are a source of life for us. 70% of the oxygen we breathe is produced by marine plants (Planet Aid). That means that what we breathe is being made in the ocean. And of course, breathing oxygen that’s been exposed to things like toxic land runoff and tons of waste, isn’t healthy for you or those around you. Marine life is also at risk, to say the least. Because of the sheer amount of trash, sunlight is being blocked from plankton and algae. They are autotrophs, meaning they can make their own nutrients using carbon, oxygen, and sunlight. Without the sun, they can die. Fish and turtles who feed on the plankton starve, or mistake bits of plastic for food. Loggerhead turtles love jellyfish and often mistake a floating plastic bag for their favorite food. Albatross feed their young resin pellets, thinking they are fish eggs. Their chicks can choke or be killed from ingesting the pellets. And when the fish and turtles are killed, tuna, whales, and sharks have nothing to eat. The entire food chain is affected. Fishermen don’t have any fish to catch, restaurants don’t have any seafood to serve, people don’t have any fish to eat. And when they do, there is a good chance that the fish would have ingested, or been exposed to something that could potentially have negative health effects on humans. In the end, it’s not the just the oceans and marine life that are affected. It’s the entire food chain, the air we breathe, the economy, our health, and the health of those around us. It’s everything.
Probably one of the most heartbreaking stories that shows the horrors of pollution on marine life is that of Mae West, a snapping turtle. As a hatchling, she somehow got the ring of a plastic milk jug stuck around her middle. As Mae grew, her shell was forced to grow around the ring. When she was found, her shell was severely deformed. But she was alive, and in fact, still is today, her hourglass-shaped shell proof of the devastating effects of plastic pollution. And Mae’s story is only one of many – stories of dead seabirds found with their stomachs chalk full of plastic, stories of seals caught and tangled in fishing nets. The stories of the suffering of marine life, the suffering we’ve bestowed upon them. It’s a problem anywhere in the ocean. But in the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, in the Great Pacific Garbage Dump, it’s much, much worse.
Cleaning up the G.P.G.P isn’t as simple as a group of volunteers armed with recycling bins and gloves, going out and picking the trash out of the ocean. In fact, having the resources, equipment, and people to really make a dent in the G.P.G.P would make a country nearly bankrupt. That’s probably why no country has claimed responsibility for it (National Geographic) – it’s so huge, so overwhelming, and so unknown that just the thought of trying to take on such a project is daunting. However, this can’t go on. As time goes by, the trash and plastic and pollution will only accumulate. Also, the plastic will continue to photodegrade and break up, making it easier for fish to ingest, and harder to get out of the ocean. In fact, it is estimated that by 2050, pieces of plastic and trash in the ocean will outnumber fish and marine life (BBC).
So, what can be done? There really isn’t one simple answer, but instead multiple ways, both big and small, to save the Pacific, and really every ocean. Perhaps the most innovative solution comes from a 22-year old Dutch inventor named Boyan Slat. At age 17, Slat founded The Ocean Cleanup, a company dedicated to just that. His idea on how to approach the G.P.G.P is to use a device with platforms and collection arms that would span over half the G.P.G.P. The floating bits of garbage and plastic would drift and gravitate onto the platforms, and eventually be removed from the ocean (The Ocean Cleanup). The method would be safe for fish, marine life, and the water. Slat says it would take around five years to complete the job. But eventually, could this be the solution for not just the G.P.G.P, but for all the ocean’s trash?
Of course, most people don’t have the time or resources to invent revolutionary methods to clean up the G.P.G.P. The most important thing we can do, however, is ensure that the G.P.G.P, and the ocean in general, doesn’t get filled up with any more trash and plastics. How? The ways to ensure this are numerous. One simple way is to cut down on the use of plastics. Not only are plastics harmful once they get into the ocean, but they also release a potent greenhouse gas when being manufactured (Ecology Center). So utilizing reusable shopping bags and water bottles instead of plastic ones really does make all the difference. Reducing your carbon footprint is also important, and it can be as simple as riding a bike instead of taking a car, or putting on a sweater instead of turning up the heat, or opening the curtains to let natural light in instead of turning on a light switch. Lastly, you can educate others on the dangers of ocean pollution and the G.P.G.P. Encourage them to be aware of the products they buy, the energy they use up, and in turn, spread the word themselves. And be an example as well! Pick up trash and plastics from the side of the road or on the beach, and even organize events to clean up, and help raise awareness for the G.P.G.P and ocean pollution in general. Because if we act now, work together, and educate ourselves and others … that Great Pacific Garbage Patch? It might not exist in five years.
Sue, Caryl, “Great Pacific Garbage Patch”, National Geographic (2014) https://www.nationalgeographic.org/encyclopedia/great-pacific-garbage-patch/
“Great Pacific Garbage Patch”, NOAA Marine Debris Program (2017) https://marinedebris.noaa.gov/info/patch.html
Ferrari, Francesco, “Understanding the Rising Speed of Plastic”, The Ocean Cleanup (2017) https://www.theoceancleanup.com/updates/show/item/understanding-the-rising-speed-of-plastic/
Dilevics, Andrew, “How Ocean Pollution Affects Humans”, Planet Aid (2016) http://www.planetaid.org/blog/how-ocean-pollution-affects-humans
Combining something I love to do, writing, with something I feel passionately about, pollution, is my favorite way to raise awareness for various topics like this one. Trash and pollution in the ocean is an issue that is not going anywhere. When I see someone toss a plastic bottle on the beach, or flick a cigarette butt out the car window, it makes me feel like others don’t care about an issue that is severely plaguing our environment, and world. I feel like if I can educate others, I can hopefully inspire them to join the growing mission to save the oceans, and the marine life that live there.