The garbage patch is largely made up of tiny bits of plastic trapped by ocean currents
Large plastic waste can break down to micro plastics that can be eaten by fish, before entering the food chain. Credit: Kevin Krejci / Flicker
A vast patch of garbage floating in the Pacific Ocean is growing so fast that it is becoming visible from space. In an aerial survey conducted by the Ocean Cleanup—an organisation working towards getting rid the oceans of plastics—reveals that the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch”, located between Hawaii and California, is far worse than previously thought.
The density of rubbish in North Pacific Ocean was several times higher than previously thought and has a much larger mass of fishing nets, plastic containers and other discarded items than imagined.
Calling it “bizarre” to see so much garbage in the ocean, Boyan Slat, the founder of the Ocean Cleanup said, “Every half second you see something. So we had to take snapshots—it was impossible to record everything.”
Understanding the problem
Currently, there are six main garbage patches. Five of them—North Pacific, North Atlantic, South Pacific, South Atlantic and Indian Ocean—are created by gyres. These are circular ocean currents formed by global wind patterns and forces created by the rotation of the earth. Gyres are where water converges and sinks. However, the plastic trash keeps swirling and not sinking to the ocean floor.
They tend to get accumulated over a period of time. The North Pacific garbage gyre is the biggest and holds more than 40 per cent of the plastics found in all gyres. The area is estimated to be bigger than Texas.
Extent of the garbage patch
After a recent reconnaissance by flights from California, it was discovered that the garbage patch is around 1 million sq km (386,000 sq miles), with the periphery spanning a further 3.5 million sq km (1,351,000 sq miles). It also revealed that the large items of more than half a metre in size have been “heavily underestimated”. What is raising alarm is the possibility of large plastic waste breaking down to micro plastics that can be eaten by fish, before entering the food chain. According to Slat, “Most of the debris was large stuff. It’s a ticking time bomb because the big stuff will crumble down to micro plastics over the next few decades if we don’t act.”
What does Ocean Cleanup aim to do?
In 2015, the Ocean Cleanup sent 30 vessels to scoop up micro plastics in fine nets. This time, the non-profit organisation plans to use a gigantic V-shaped boom, which would use sea currents to funnel floating rubbish into a cone. If a prototype of the vulcanised 100-km-long rubber barrier is successfully tested in 2017, it is likely to be deployed by 2020.
The boom, however, will not be able to suck up all of the strewn plastics.
In 2014, 311 million tonnes of plastic were produced around the world, and in the same year, scientists had devised a mathematical model to determine the countries contributing to the garbage patch. In 2015, a scientific sailing expedition had set forth for first global assessment of the plastic trash we have dumped into our oceans. This January, a report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation predicted presence of more plastic than fish in the oceans by 2050 unless the world takes urgent action. Despite the growing demand of plastics, just 5 per cent of it is recycled effectively and one-third of world’s total plastics end up being in the oceans.
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