Ocean Garbage Patches and the Need for a Big Clean Up

Where does all the rubbish we throw into the water end up?

Close your eyes and think of the word “garbage patch”.

What did you see?

Perhaps an island of trash floating in the ocean consisting of plastic bags and bottles.

Yet,  garbage patches consist of tiny micro-particles and cannot be seen by the naked eye. There will be no giant patch of garbage that can be seen on satellite images, the micro-plastics will simply make the water look a bit cloudy. There may be larger items in the patches filled with shoes and fishing gears. But overall, these garbage patches are difficult to see.

The trash in the ocean ends up in the five big pockets known as garbage patches. Visualizing these patches may help us not only to become more aware of the problem with throwing almost 13 million tons of plastic waste in the ocean (figure from 2010) but also to design methods to clean up the waste that keeps gathering in these patches. The sun breaks down plastic from plastic bags, bottle caps, plastic water bottles and Syrofoam cups into tinier and tinier pieces, photodegradation, and 750,000 bits of micro-plastic has been found in a single square kilometre of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (1.9 million bits per square mile).

NASA has come up with a way to show the world how and where garbage collects in our oceans. They identified five big garbage patches called gyres. The visualization in the video also shows what the ocean’s garbage patches might look like in 20 years. A model was created to stimulate the movement of garbage 20 years into the future. The visualization shows that garbage that does not wash up onshore or disintegrate in the water, gather in one of the five patches.

Video via NASA.

The plastic found in the ocean may end up in the stomach of marine birds and animals, such as sea turtles and albatross. Another problem is that these plastic particles can absorb pollutants from seawater, for example, DDT and PCBs. Apart from the toxic effect of eating material containing these organic pollutants, the animal may also experience hormone disruptions. Eventually, these pollutants may be consumed by humans eating fish and seafood.

Microbes have been found digesting plastic in landfills but there is evidence of marine bacteria breaking down plastic in the ocean. The plastic-eating bacteria may explain why the amount of debris in the ocean has levelled out even though we are counting with using plastic products and dumping plastic in the ocean. The question is whether these microbes are cleaning up the oceans or whether they are producing toxic products. Thus, it seems like these five garbage patches are filled with life and bacterial communities.

Regardless of whether the bacteria are turning the plastic into something good or toxic, we need to do something about this problem. One reason is that the garbage patches changes the life underneath the patches. Minimizing or eliminating our own use of disposable plastics is one of the best way to clean up the garbage patches. Use biodegradable or reusable materials. Or why not be inspired by Boyan Slat.

After diving in Greece, and coming across more plastic bags than fish, Boyan wondered; “why can’t we clean this up?”

An expedition sponsored by the Ocean Cleanup, an organisation founded by Boyan, gathered data on how much plastic garbage that is floating in the Pacific ocean. The majority of the trash was in medium to large-sized pieces. This survey of the plastic garbage will be finished in 2016 and it was the result of the 2012 Ted Talk below. After the talk, Boyan launched a Kickstarter campaign and raised money to help collect data.

The aim of Ocean Cleanup is to initiate the largest cleanup in history. The company develop technologies to extract prevent and intercept plastic pollution.

It is hard to feel inspired by things that are happening and despite difficulties, the world is filled with people determined to do something.

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