A massive conglomeration of plastic waste in the middle of the North Pacific Ocean is said to be one or two times the size of the US state of Texas, according to Greenpeace.
The Northern Pacific Gyre is one of five gyres in the world’s oceans. Estimates are that 10 percent of the world’s plastic waste finds its way into the sea and gets trapped in a gyre: where the circular currents caused by the rotation of the Earth catch debris. In these high pressure hubs the sea circulates in a very slow spiral, and the light winds and currents force flotsam and jetsam into the center. Everything afloat becomes trapped.
Although unseen to most human eyes, the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) reports that problems caused by this kind of pollution are numerous and serious. Plastic is slowly broken down into fragments and dust resembling plankton, which marine wildlife consumes. The plastic contamination moves up the food chain as these creatures are eaten by predators and larger species – including humans. Dr. Marcus Eriksen of Algalita Research Foundation noted, “Whatever goes into the ocean goes into these animals and onto your dinner plate.”
Sea life can also become entangled in the debris, while creatures such as turtles, pinnipeds and seabirds can confuse the plastic fragments for food. Deceased animals have been found with discarded plastic lighters, water bottle caps and scraps of plastic bags in their stomachs. Estimates are that over a million seabirds, as well as more than 100,000 marine mammals, die every year from ingesting plastic debris.
Besides being a danger in themselves, these vast areas of plastic pollution act as chemical sponges, attracting other damaging pollutants such as persistent organic pollutants (POPs), hydrocarbons and pesticides like DDT that have been dumped in the oceans, creating even more highly damaging toxins for marine wildlife.
A problem on many levels
The Northern Pacific plastic dump is deceptive to the eye. While it contains huge amounts of plastic waste, it is not all floating on the surface. Wave action and the heat of the sun degrade the plastic into smaller and smaller particles which form a sinking toxic soup that extends about six meters below the ocean’s surface.
But there is still enough plastic floating on the surface to create a false habitat for plant and animal organisms. Once attached to the floating surface these species are transported far beyond their normal ecosystems. These ocean hitchhikers then invade new habitats, potentially becoming nuisance or invasive species in new ecosystems where nature didn’t intend them to live.
Not all plastic floats. As it breaks down it can begin to sink towards the ocean floor. According to Greenpeace, Dutch scientists have discovered that over 70 percent of discarded plastic eventually sink to the sea bed, and have counted an astounding 600,000 tons of plastic on the North Sea floor. As that ocean surface becomes increasingly smothered by with plastic, organisms there struggle to survive.
These problems are being intensified as modern plastics become more durable and increasingly more disposable. But there has been little concern voiced by governments as these toxic garbage patches largely lay in international waters, outside of normal legislative considerations.
As the Pacific plastic dump grows, it could double in size by 2015: and the effect on the human food chain become more toxic and problematic.