The Great Pacific Garbage Patch
The growing concern of the world to global warming can be traced back to pollution. One of the most apparent is water pollution which affects three-fourths of the whole world. The ocean is where most of the human waste, be it intentional or unconsciously, goes. This waste is called marine debris. It does not only include human waste, but also the natural waste occurring in the environment which escalates as the degradation of the bodies of water continues. According to (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 2011), marine debris is any persistent solid material that is dumped into the marine environment. It may consist of metals, glass, rubber, plastic, and other materials.
Plastic have the biggest percent of marine debris in the Pacific Gyre. All over the world, plastics have been used in almost everything. If one looks around in his home, there will always be something made of plastic. Plastics are durable, light, and cost low to produce. However, as much as it helps everyone because of these characteristics, it has made a great impact to the environment – negatively.
In the northern part of the Pacific Gyre lies an immense collection of man-made debris is located. It is known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. As it continues to gather debris, it poses an increasing danger not only to marine life, but also to us humans.
This paper aims to: (1) look into the historical perspective of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch; (2) analyse the issues surrounding it and the key players involved in it; (3) study its impact environmentally, socially, and globally in the long and short run; and (4) arrive to a possible alternate solutions to the problems connected to it.
A Historical Perspective
First, there are misconceptions about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Some reports say that it is as big as Texas, or even more. But, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), there is no scientific estimate for the size or mass of the patches. Actually, there is no patch. The word patch is associated with the image of a big clump of floating marine debris. It is not. Although it is true that there is a high concentration of man-made waste such as plastics in these areas, these plastics are in small bits or microplastics (Office of Response and Restoration, 2013). These microplastics are suspended in a circular system of currents in the ocean known as a gyre.
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is actually a gyre of floating marine debris in the central part of the North Pacific Ocean. This is why it is also known as the Pacific trash vortex (Turgeon, 2014). It was Charles Moore, a racing boat captain, who discovered the trash vortex when he was sailing from Hawaii to California after a yacht race. As of today, together with a team of scientists, Moore has been monitoring the patch for fifteen years now (Heikkila, A. 2014).
The patch spans from the West Coast of North America to Japan. The Pacific patch is comprised of two patches, the Eastern and Western Pacific patch. When currents meet up, they form a spinning vortex of marine debris that moves from one patch to another. Because of the continuous movement of currents in the gyre, it is hard to measure the massiveness of the patch, although it is approximated at a hundred million tons of garbage (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 2011). At the center of the gyre, the water becomes stable and calm. It traps the marine debris suspended around and accumulates, because most of what it collects are not biodegradable. The debris only breaks into tiny pieces which make up the microplastics floating in the gyre.
Roughly eighty-percent of plastic comprising the debris are said to come from land and the other percent comes from the ocean itself. There are four categories into which the debris came from: sewage, tourism, fishing, and marine vessel-waste. Debris coming from the sewage are mainly solid wastes from landfills carried to the sea from rivers, streams, and underground waterways. It also includes trashes that are not disposed of properly. Tourism, likewise, contributes to trash that is not discarded properly. It is one of the main reasons, aside from industrial wastes, for beach pollution where trash goes directly into the ocean. Fishing and marine vessels also adds to the debris be it accidentally or intentionally (Sesini, 2011).
While it is discovered by ecologists and oceanographers that seventy-percent of the debris sinks into the ocean, the latter percent of the debris is mainly composed of plastics which floats at the surface of the ocean. This is seen to be problematic since plastics aren’t biodegradable. The natural way of decomposing organic materials is called biodegration which do not take effect with plastic. Although there were experiments that have found certain bacteria that can degrade plastic, further research is needed to solve the alarming increase of plastic waste. One proven way of breaking plastic is through photodegradation. This decomposition uses sunlight or UV rays to break the bonds that hold plastic together (Germaine, 2014).
Together with these discoveries, there were calls for actions in order to create a movement for the clean-up of the Great Pacific Patch.
According to the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) in 2006, there are five main garbage patches where The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is the largest. The four others are recirculation gyres that results to the convergence of currents in certain areas such as in the Indian and Atlantic Ocean (Sesini, 2011). As mentioned, the floating trash vortexes are mostly made up of plastic where four dimensions of the problem come into place. First, plastic breaks down to tiny pieces and gets dispersed as it floats and moves around with the current of the ocean which then affects the marine environment. Second, there is an increase of accumulation of plastic in the patch as there is a continuous generation, use, and improper disposal of waste into the ocean. Third, this is not just a national problem but a global issue which affects every part of the world. Fourth, the effect of plastic waste to the marine ecosystem is still hard to prove as there is a wide array of pollutants that is present in them.
The First Dimension: Environmental Impact
Even if the patch sizes are only approximated and the debris materials in it are said to be a very small portion of plastic generation in the United States, it still poses a huge potential damage to the marine ecosystem. One of the most apparent environmental impacts of the Great Patch is the plastic ingestion of marine animals. Fish, sea turtles, and whales mistake the colorful confetti as food. Again, plastic is a non-biodegradable material that cannot be digested by animals which results to gastrointestinal obstruction.
In relation to this, birds are also affected second-handed by ingesting fish which has fed on plastic (Ryan, 1990). Likewise, feeding on sharp objects causes cuts and ulcerations in the stomach lining of marine animals. This does not only points out to plastic but also to heavy metal products that is collected in the ocean. These metals are fed upon by fish, to birds, and to us human. This proves that it is not only the marine fauna that is affected, but everything that is linked into its food web. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch extends a hundred feet below the surface which blocks phytoplankton and algae from getting enough sunlight. These are the main food source of fish in the ocean. If the start of the very food web itself is threatened, then what follows faces more danger.
Another ramification is marine fauna’s entanglement to plastic wastes. Birds and big fish in the ocean are caught up in larger debris. Also the transport of toxic chemicals and the high concentration of polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) compounds in the water add to the marine environment problem. The foraging abilities of these animals get damaged and impair their ability to survive. Since, plastic does not get digested it creates a false feeling of satiation to them, thus limiting the essentials needed by their body for daily survival and reproduction.
The Second Dimension: Social Accumulation
The plastic industry is the third largest industry in the United States. According to the Container Recycling Institute, the sales and consumption of PET bottles alone reached 42.6 Billion in 2010 from 2.6 Billion in 1996. The recycling and wasting recorded, on the other hand, reached about 1,000 Million pounds of recycled materials and about 4,000 Million of landfilled in the year 2005 (CRI, n.d). Only a fraction of what has been produced. It was also mentioned earlier that even if some these materials are landfilled, most of it still continues to trace its way to bodies of water. Although there are legislations that aim to control plastic use, for example the ban of plastic bag-use in grocery stores in some parts of the US, it still is not enough to prevent the huge amount of contribution of plastic in the Pacific patch. It is one step, but if we consider the current condition by how human lives as of today, even the laptop that was used to make this paper is made by plastic. That laptop will soon be damaged and be of no use, discarded probably in one of the landfills around the US. Somehow, a one-percent chance of its little particles ending up in a body of water and into the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is plausible.
The Third Dimension: Stakeholders and Key Players
The impact of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is not just a national problem. It is a global problem that holds potential consequences around the world. The oceans of the world are linked in one way or another. This means that what flows in one ocean may end up in another. Some of these trash are decades old. Because the patch is far from any coastline of any country, no nation would like to take the responsibility of funding and cleaning it up. Even if beaches in those countries are being covered with five to ten feet of trash as debris drifts away from the gyres and are washed away in them. Moore even said that cleaning up the garbage patch would “bankrupt any country” (Turgeon, 2014). Instead of nations helping hand in hand in solving this problem, no one bats an eye and it is up to non-profit organizations to make the move be it in spreading awareness, or even in the actual attempt to clean up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
In 2008, the Environmental Cleanup Coalition (ECC) was formed by Richard Sundance Owen. The ECC launched a research effort to attend to this alarming “larger environmental hazard” (Bradshaw, 2009). Among his ideas were to make nets that would catch large pieces of the debris, but would allow marine life to escape. At the time, seminars and fund raising events were held by the organization to raise awareness about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Another attempt to raise awareness was when Algalita Marine Research and Education organized the JUNK Raft Project in 2009. Two men, Marcus Eriksen and Joel Paschal voyaged the 2, 600 miles distance between Long Beach, California and Honolulu, Hawaii in a makeshift raft. The trip lasted three months. In an interview with them, they told a story about how they watched a caught up fish in a rack grow for five weeks. When they attempted to eat it, they found its stomach filled with plastic. At the same time Roz Savage was making a trip from San Francisco to Hawaii with the same goal, as well (Yap, 2008).
In August 2009, two ships – the New Horizon and Kaisei – with a group of researchers from Scripps Institution of Oceanography departed to explore the trash vortex. The former ship focused on scientific research which looked at the impact of the vortex to the marine ecosystem, while the latter experimented on ways to clean up the debris without harming marine life (Walsh, 2009). Similar to the goals of the first two expeditions, this project hoped to awaken the people to the fact that their use of plastic resulted to this huge plastic vortex. Along with the organized voyages of different research teams, actual conceptualization on how to remove large amounts of debris in the oceanic gyres. The concept The Ocean Cleanup was proposed by Dutch Aerospace Engineering Student Boyan Slat in 2012. He proposed a clean-up that would use the surface currents of the gyres to make the debris flow through a specially designed arms and collection platforms. He noted in his talk that the project will only be as effective if alternate actions are to be made and that is to start preventing more plastic waste products that we use from reaching the ocean (The Ocean Cleanup, n.d).
Aside from non-profit organizations, some companies and individual people began different ways in order to raise more awareness and help little by little in cleaning up the great patch. Method, a company who produces household products, marketed dish soap with its container partly made from the recycled plastic debris collected in the ocean. Another attempt was by an artist Marina DeBris used plastic trash to make clothes made out of it. These were called trashions. In 2013, Maria Cristina Finucci, together with UNESCO, founded the The Garbage Patch State. It started the series of events under UNESCO in answer to the problems arising with the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
Currently, the reduction in the use of plastic is being implemented in other countries as well. Recycling is globally encouraged and the call for social awareness is also widespread. In a 2014 expedition led by Moore, his team used aerial drones to assess the extent of the Pacific patch which showed one hundred times more than what was measured before. “Plastic islands” of 15-meter length have also been spotted (Turgeon, 2014). Moore was even able to stand atop one of the “plastic island” floating in the Pacific (Heikkila, 2014).
The Fourth Dimension: Causation and Solutions
The three dimensions are without a doubt undebatable, but the fourth is still being researched on by different scientists and organizations. Although the causation of the problem is not yet conclusive, its effect to the environment and impact to the whole world is obvious.
Efforts should be exerted which might actually reduce the refusal of countries in helping one another in cleaning the patch. Supporting The Ocean Cleanup Project is one way to start for it has the most promising alternative solution in solving the Pacific patch problem. Treaties between countries must be implemented. Prohibitions in dumping waste into bodies of water must be enforced and regulated. The eradication of plastic use seems impossible since it is in everything that we use in our everyday life. But regulations should be upheld to at least lessen its use. It can also help to promote the 4Rs of reduction, reuse, recycling and recovery in managing our local waste (Sesini, 2011). Some countries have followed in banning the use of plastic bags in groceries and markets. The use of recyclable bags is being promoted and lots of organizations are accepting volunteers for cleaning coastlines. Although these are small steps in cleaning up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch it is better than nothing. We cannot just sit around while we watch the world gets covered with trash that we ourselves have thrown out.
The ramification of the increasing size of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is wide and it affects us all. It is not just an environmental problem, but is also an economic and social problem.
It is often true that people only takes action as soon as the problem is realized. We most certainly have not perceived these consequences before we even became too overwhelmed with how plastic and other products have made our life so much easier and convenient, from disposable utensils to the styrofoam containers on birthday parties; from cigarette butts to the bottles of your favorite shampoo; and from the covers of our old phones to the used rusting old cars – all of this has contributed to that large masses of marine debris floating somewhere around the world.
Since prevention will only come after realization hits people, it is hoped that awareness will spread more and will reach each one of us. By that, we could at least make our own pledges to help preserve the marine environment that we were given. In ten years, from how fast we consume and dispose materials, we might just wake up one day knowing that we have been fishing in a sea of debris. No matter how vast the ocean is, there is a limit to it and we soon hit the jackpot of losing one of the main sources of our basic need for surviving if we do not do anything.
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is not so great if we think of it, it is an impending doom that may rest upon us soon.
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