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Myths and the Great Pacific Garbage Patch

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is located in the North Pacific Ocean and is a collection of marine debris. This debris has accumulated to an enormous size and is considered a serious threat to marine life in the Pacific Ocean. In discussing the Great Pacific Garbage Patch it is important to have a background of where it is, what it contains, how it accumulates and what it affects. Of equal importance is examining some of the myths that perpetuate about the plastics in the ocean in regards to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is actually comprised of two separate areas. The first was discovered by Captain Charles Moore, who while sailing home to California, came across what is now known as the Eastern Pacific Garbage Patch located off the coast of Japan. The Western Pacific Garbage Patch is located between Japan and north of Hawaii. Both are bordered by the North Pacific Gyre, which is made up of heavy currents, winds and the rotation of Earth. that, according to Arthur Getis, “keep the trash swirling in a giant whirlpool – ‘like a toilet bowl that never flushes’…”1 The North Pacific Subtropical Convergence Zone then pulls waste materials in from the Asian and North American coasts, gradually accumulating into the existing garbage whirlpools. This is accomplished by warmer southern waters that meet up with the colder water from the Arctic and acts like a highway allowing the transportation of debris between the patches. At the center of the convergence zone it is very calm, similar to the eye of a hurricane, which allows the garbage to become trapped in a perpetual spin cycle.2

 Marine debris accumulation locations in the North Pacific Ocean
Marine debris accumulation locations in the North Pacific Ocean | Source

The patches are mainly comprised of materials that are not biodegradable such as plastics. Prior to the invention of such biodegradable materials, nature took its course and was able to dispose of materials on its own, incorporating it into the marine ecosystem. But these materials that are not biodegradable, can stay in this vortex of garbage well over 16 years, as degradation can only reach a certain level where it becomes unable to be dissolved further except through incinerating it.3 Of equal concern is not only the floating debris, but what actually is accumulating on the ocean floor. According to National Geographic,

“Oceanographers and ecologists recently discovered that about 70% of marine debris actually sinks to the bottom of the ocean.”4 This is creating a large trash dump on the ocean floor. The concern here is that all of this plastic and debris will sit on the ocean floor, absorbing, festering and eventually infect the marine ecosystem as a whole.5

The main concern is of course how this is affecting marine animal life. In the short film “Midway: A Message from the Gyre” by Chris Jordan, we get a glimpse at how the island of Midway, that resides just south of the Western Pacific Garbage Patch, is being decimated by the plastics from the Pacific Garbage Patches, in particular the plight of the albatross. Midway is considered an important albatross rookery. However, as the film shows, the beaches of Midway are littered with dead and dying carcasses of the birds, some entwined in fishing nets, other with stomachs full of plastic garbage. It is estimated that 40% of the fledglings never leave the island and die there from starvation.6 Another major concern is that of something called nurdles, which are small plastic pellets used to manufacture plastic products. The concern is these pieces of plastic are numerous and also perfect fish egg replicas. Fish consume these thinking they are eggs. However, these pieces of plastic, have floated in the ocean they become sponge-like and absorb pollutants. Once the fish consume these nurdles, they become contaminated, in turn contaminating the large species that consumes the fish. This has not only an effect on the marine ecosystem, but on the human ecosystem as well as fish are a staple food in most parts of the world.7

Photos such as this are constantly being used to portray and misinform about what the Pacific Garbage Patch really is. This photo is NOT anywhere near the North Pacific Gyre.
Photos such as this are constantly being used to portray and misinform about what the Pacific Garbage Patch really is. This photo is NOT anywhere near the North Pacific Gyre.

There are many myths that surround these patches of swirling debris. The first, and most common, is that it is a bunch of floating junk like bottles, nets, shoes, and other ‘larger’ types of debris. While these do exist the patches themselves are actually made up of microscopic bits of plastics called micro plastics that usually cannot even be seen by the naked eye. It is created by a process called ‘photodegradation’ which breaks the plastics down to the level they can no longer be degraded. This creates this cloudy, soup-like mix that swirls around instead of the concept of the city dump floating in the ocean.8 In 2011, Charlie Gillis noted that in an interview with oceanographer Angelique White, where she stated that while steps should not be diminished in combating waste disposal and its effects on our ecosystem, but that the idea of this huge trash dump floating on the water is not even remotely correct. She states that,

Imagine 1,000 one-liter bottles sitting in front of you all full of water from this area…three to five of those bottles would have one piece of plastic the size of a pencil eraser. It’s [The Great Pacific Garbage Patch] not twice the size of Texas. You can’t see it from space. It’s not even something you can see from the deck of a ship.9

Interestingly, White also decided to use the standard method to collect for the ocean- a cheesecloth net towed through the water. According to Gillis it took hours to find even a handful of small plastic debris, let alone any large pieces. However, she was clear to make the point that this should in no way prevent “reliable science to get lost along the way.”10

Another myth is that the patch is “a floating island of solid garbage” and that the Eastern Garbage Patch is roughly twice the size of Texas. Scripps Institute marine biologist Miriam Goldstein has visited the area on several occasions, and has even swum in it, and notes that most of the pieces are “about the size of your pinkie fingernail” and that the institute has never seen it on satellite.11 Much of this idea of the areas being “islands of garbage” has been propagated through the mainstream media and eco-bloggers. Oprah Winfrey even called it “the world’s largest trash dump” and further perpetuated the myth that the area was larger than Texas. Even oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer, who set off the garbage patch alarm an over a decade ago, concedes that these comparisons to the size of Texas were most likely from him and that the “descriptions, have, perhaps, gotten out of hand.”12

Another concern of this debris killing animals lays in a gray area of truth and myth. It is not argued by anyone who studies the ecosystem of oceans that plastics are harmful. The myth that it is killing animals is like an onion, it has many layers of complexity. It is clear some animals are being harmed. For example, Daisy Dumas present images in her article “Landfill-on-sea” that show the harmful effects of plastics and animal life, from a sea turtle whose shell has become two parts, separated by a band of plastic from a beer holder wrapped tightly around it to seals being trapped in fishing nets.13 Another argument is that 40% of baby albatross’s near the Patch die within a year due to starvation from ingesting plastics.14 However, while there is clear evidence that birds and fish are indeed consuming the plastics, it’s difficult to determine if that consumption was the actual cause of death. Goldstein points out that,

Some studies of albatrosses show plastic correlating with poor nutrition — and you do see a lot of dead chicks with their stomachs absolutely stuffed with plastic…The problem is that we don't know whether there are also birds who eat the plastic and survive. We're not going to go around killing baby albatrosses to examine their stomach contents.15

Dead albatross with plastic in its stomach
Dead albatross with plastic in its stomach

Ironically, the very thing that has a detrimental effect on some species has completely the opposite effect on others. Some species, such as water skater insects, small crabs, barnacles and bryozoans actually thrive off the debris, having a place to attach, lay eggs, etc. where in the past they led a very difficult existence in the oceans attempting to find a hard surface necessary for them to thrive off of.16

While the idea perpetuated by the knee-jerk reaction of the mainstream media and some over-zealous ecologists that this vast island of filth is a major threat to the world is a bit of overkill. It is however clear that there is a problem and negligence on humankind's part in polluting our oceans. One of the largest obstacles is the plans for correcting our mess. That in itself is not an easy task. Because of the location of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, no nation is willing to take responsibility for it or assist in funding to get it cleaned up. Charles Moore stated that this prospect would “bankrupt any country” that tried it.17 There are, however, individuals and other organizations who are taking the lead and attempting to tackle the issue of ocean garbage. But again, some of the statistics are staggering and make efforts almost seem futile. The National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration has a Marine Debris Program that has reported it would take 67 ships and entire year just to clean-up less than one percent of the North Pacific Ocean.

However, there are optimists such as Boyan Slat, who at 17 years old devised a method of attempting to tackle the problem. He believes that instead of moving through the oceans to gather up the trash, have the oceans move through you by creating floating barriers and platforms that collect the plastic, not by using nets, but by solid floating barriers that allows the current to flow underneath the booms allowing the plastic to collect in front of the floating barrier. He believes that his project is scalable enough to cover a single gyre anywhere from five to ten years.18

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is one the top, controversial subjects in the world today. With proponents of climate change beating at the doors of the legislatures of nearly every country in the world, it is clear that many believe that we need to, metaphorically speaking, clean up our act and start taking better of our home. The oceans make up 71 percent of our planet and 97 percent of the planets water. While it is clear we must be better stewards of our world, there also needs to be far less knee-jerk reactions by the mainstream media and politicians and more problem solving people, such as Boyan Slat, to fix the problem, not point fingers.

Sources

1 Arthur Getis, Mark Bjelland, and Victoria Getis. Introduction to Geography. (New York: McGraw-Hill Education, 2014), 378.

2 Andrew Turgeon. "Great Pacific Garbage Patch: Pacific Trash Vortex." National Geographic. n.d. http://education.nationalgeographic.com/education/encyclopedia/great-pacific-garbage-patch/?ar_a=1 (accessed January 4, 2015).

3 Daisy Dumas. "Landfill-on-sea." Ecologist, Feb. 7, 2008: p35.

4 Turgeon, Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

5 Dumas, Landfill-on-sea, 37.

6 Ibid., 35.

7 Susan L. Dautel. "Transoceanic Trash: International and United States Strategies For the Great Pacific Garbage Patch." Golden Gate University Environmental Law Journal, 2009: 187-188.

8 Turgeon, Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

9 Charlie Gillis. "Trashing the Island." Maclean's, 2011: 53

10 Ibid.

11 Annalee Newitz. Lies You've Been Told About the Pacific Garbage Patch. May 21, 2012. http://io9.com/5911969/lies-youve-been-told-about-the-pacific-garbage-patch (accessed February 25, 2015).

12 Gillis. Trashing the Island, 53.

13 Dumas, Landfill-on-sea, 36.

14 Dautel, Transoceanic Trash. 188.

15 Newitz, Lies You've Been Told About the Pacific Garbage Patch.

16 Ibid.

17 Turgeon, Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

18 Boyan Slat. "The Concept." The Ocean Cleanup, Developing Technologies to Extract, Prevent and Intercept Plastic Pollution. n.d. http://www.theoceancleanup.com/the-concept.html (accessed February 20, 2015).

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