What Is the Great Garbage Patch?

A Large Unmapped Island… of Trash

There is a very large island floating on the Northern Pacific Ocean. If you have never heard of it or do not know about it, do not be impressed. It is not indicated on maps and it is hardly ever visible to the naked eye, nor can satellite imagery show it clearly.

This is because this island is almost entirely made up of very small plastic debris – called microplastics – which float on the ocean surface along with larger objects such as bottles, bottle caps, fishing nets, computer monitors and various other things lost or abandoned by oil rigs or ships crossing the ocean. Being made up of waste materials, the island has not surprisingly been labelled the Great Garbage Patch.

What Are the Dangers of the Great Garbage Patch?

Often sadly overlooked, the Great Garbage Patch – also referred to as the Pacific Trash Vortex –  is at present one of the world’s most serious phenomena of environmental pollution.

Though its existence had long been predicted by environment experts and oceanographers, it was Charles Moore, the captain of a racing boat, who on the way back to California from a sail race first caught sight of the flotsam in the North Pacific subtropical gyre, a region of the ocean normally avoided by seafarers.

“As I gazed from the deck at the surface of what ought to have been a pristine ocean, I was confronted, as far as the eye could see, with the sight of plastic,” he wrote.

But what is the size of the Garbage Patch? Some say it is as vast as Texas, while others claim that its dimensions cannot be told because debris can sink centimetres under the surface of water making it impossible to measure accurately.

One thing is for sure: the impact on the ecosystem in the gyre is devastating. In a process known as photo-degradation, sunlight breaks down plastic waste into very tiny parts which are mistaken for food and ingested by the birds, fish or turtles populating that area of the ocean, while other species may also get trapped in the nets that have been abandoned at sea.

 

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