We all have a timeshare on Trash Island

Crossing the Pacific Ocean and need a place to rest? How about Trash Island, or as it’s formally known as, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. This patch of debris formed in the Pacific Ocean due to the “convergence zone” where the warm water from the South Pacific-4Pacific meets the cold water from the arctic. Although it isn’t the only pile of swirling garbage in the world, it is the biggest. Because trash may float below the surface of the water by a few meters and much of it sinks to the ocean floor, it is impossible to tell how much area the trash mass has. In terms of it’s size, the estimates range from the size of Texas to twice the size of the U.S.A. National Geographic has an exclusive piece on its importance and impact on our world.

About 80% of the debris in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch comes from activities between North America and Asia. Trash from the coast of North America takes about six gyreyears to reach the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, while trash from Japan and other Asian countries takes about a year. The other 20% of the floating island is made up from boaters, oil rigs and cargo ships that directly dump their debris on their voyages out at sea. This adds up to roughly 705,000 tons of mostly fishing nets. However, the majority of the island is still plastic.

The reason plastic is such a problem is because as the plastic floats In the ocean, the sun breaks down these plastics into tinier and tinier pieces. Scientists have collected up to 1.9 million bits per square mile. Most of this debris comes from plastic bags, bottle caps, plastic water bottles, and Styrofoam cups.

Plastic can be very harmful to marine life. For instance, loggerhead sea turtles often mistake plastic bags for jellyfish and eat it. Albatrosses think plastic pellets are fish eggs and feed them to chicks, which then die of starvation or ruptured organs. Seals and other marine mammals are especially at risk. They can get entangled in abandoned plastic fishing nets.

Marine debris can also disturb marine food chains in the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre. marine-debrisAs microplastics and other trash collect on surface of the ocean, they block sunlight from reaching plankton and algae below. 

If algae and plankton communities are threatened, the entire food chain may change. Animals that feed on algae and plankton, such as fish, turtles and whales, will have less food. If populations of those animals decrease, there will be less food for apex predators such as tuna, sharks, and whales. Eventually, the seafood people love to eat becomes less available, more expensive and likely contaminated.

The bottom line is there is too much plastic swirling around the ocean and even cutting out the lid and straw used so often for drinks can make a difference throughout a lifetime. Find out more at the Plastic Pollution Coalition website.

Sources: National Geographic

Picture Sources: Flickr, NOAA and ZME Science

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