A beach covered in plastic bottles and other pollution.

Marine plastic pollution that has washed up on a beach

You’ve probably heard of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch: a vast area in the northern Pacific Ocean that is highly concentrated in marine debris, primarily plastics. What perhaps you don’t realize is that the garbage patch is not a “garbage island” of sorts—a huge floating mass of solid trash. However, it is an enormous area (estimated to be between 700,000 and 15,000,000 square kilometers) that is inundated with small and microscopic plastic particles.

The plastic pollution in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch exists primarily as tiny particles because of both wave-driven mechanical degradation and sunlight-driven photodegradation of larger plastic debris. Plastic is unique in that it can be broken down into smaller and smaller pieces but still remains a polymer; it can never be decomposed entirely. That is why ninety percent of trash floating in the ocean is plastic. The small plastic particles have accumulated in the North Pacific due to gradual transportation of marine pollution by a system of ocean surface currents that form the North Pacific Gyre.

Location and Discovery

A diagram of major currents in the North Pacific Ocean.

The major currents that form the North Pacific Gyre

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, also known as the Pacific trash vortex, spans from the waters off the east coast of Japan to the waters off the west coast of California. It is bound by the North Pacific Gyre, a circular system of ocean currents that concentrates plastic pollution into two specific zones: the western garbage patch near Japan and the eastern garbage patch near California. The North Pacific Subtropical Convergence Zone links these two patches together. This convergence zone forms where cool Arctic water meets warm South Pacific water and acts as a passageway that can move debris from one patch to another.

The existence of the Pacific Ocean garbage patch was predicted by a 1989 scientific paper published by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Several Alaska-based scientists studied the characteristics and distribution of surface plastic in the Pacific for a period of four years. The scientists proposed that a combination of surface currents, winds, and microscale convergences locally concentrated the plastic in the North Pacific and increased its probability of entering into food chains.

The remains of an albatross with a stomach full of plastic pollution

The remains of an albatross at Midway Atoll containing ingested plastic pollution

The garbage patch was first visibly identified by oceanographer Charles J. Moore in the late 1990s. He discovered a vast area of the ocean where in certain spots plastic pollution outweighed living biomass six to one. “There were shampoo caps and soap bottles and plastic bags and fishing floats as far as I could see,” Moore said, “Here I was in the middle of the ocean, and there was nowhere I could go to avoid the plastic” (see Charles Moore speak about the Pacific garbage patch here). Since its discovery, there has been significant research conducted on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and new hazards are being detected as the patch continues to increase in size and intensity.

New Dangers

Recently, a tiny organism has been found to be wreaking havoc on coral reefs located near the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Halofolliculina is a small, single-celled ciliate that is thriving in the plastic-filled waters of the North Pacific. Halofolliculina is a pathogen that causes skeletal eroding band disease in corals, and it is thriving in the so-called “plastisphere” of the North Pacific Gyre.

A tiny, black, single-celled organism with two antennae

Halofolliculina (Photo by Hank Carson)

Contrary to what you may expect, excessive trash in the ocean is not universally harmful to all organisms. Plastic pollution in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is hazardous to birds and certain fishes that mistakenly ingest it; but other organisms, such as Halofolliculina, are finding the assorted plastic pieces to be ideal surfaces to live on.

While this is great for Halofolliculina, it can be devastating for corals. Skeletal eroding band disease was first observed on coral reefs around the Hawaiian Islands in 2010. While it is not certain how the disease reached the islands, it is likely that the massive amounts of plastic pollution that wash up on the Hawaiian Islands every day harbor some Halofolliculina. This could transport skeletal eroding band disease to Hawaiian corals when they otherwise would not have been exposed to it.

Likewise, other invasive species can be transported to far away locations on plastic debris. Water skater insects, small crabs, barnacles, bryozoans, and other organisms that live on hard substrates are all reaping the benefits of plastic pollution in the Pacific garbage vortex. It is difficult to evaluate the impact of these invasive organisms, but their growing prevalence in the North Pacific Gyre is certainly the result of an environment that has been thrown out of balance by an abundance of plastic contamination.

A close-up on a pile of used plastic bottles.

An estimates two million plastic beverage bottles are used in the United States every five minutes.

What Can Be Done?

Because of the sheer size of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and its distance from any country’s major coastline, attempting to clear the marine pollution is not an appealing venture. Charles Moore himself has stated that clearing the garbage patch would “bankrupt any country” that attempted it. Experts agree that the most effective immediate remedy would be to limit our production and consumption of plastic in the first place. This, however, is no easy task as the world’s population skyrockets and we trend more and more towards becoming exclusively a “throw-away society.”

Despite the obvious challenges, organizations like the Plastic Pollution Coalition and the Plastic Oceans Foundation are encouraging individuals and corporations to transition from toxic plastics to biodegradable and reusable materials. While it may not be realistically possible to remove the existing garbage from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, we can at least attempt to do all we can to keep the trash vortex from spiraling out of control.

 

References

Day, R.H., Shaw, D.G., Ignell, S.E. (1990). The quantitative distribution and characteristics of neuston plastic in the North Pacific Ocean, 1985– 88. In: Shomura, R.S., Godfrey, M.L. (Eds.), Proceedings of the Second International Conference on Marine Debris, April 2–7, 1989.

Goldstein, Miriam. “The Scariest Inhabitant of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch Is Not What You Think.” Deep Sea News. 14 May 2014. Web.

Goldstein, M.C., Carson, H.S., Eriksen, M. (2014). Relationship of diversity and habitat area in North Pacific plastic-associated rafting communities. Marine biology, 161(6), 1441-1453.

Magraw-Mickelson, Jacob. 2009. Transparency: The Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Infographic. GOOD. Web.

Newitz, Annalee. “Lies You’ve Been Told About the Pacific Garbage Patch.” Io9. 21 May 2012. Web.

Turgeon, Andrew. “Great Pacific Garbage Patch.” National Geographic Education. National Geographic. Web.