What if instead of oats and marshmallows in your cereal bowl you woke up one morning to find tiny bits of plastic floating in your milk? This is what's happening to the creatures living in the Garbage Patch.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is an area of the North Pacific Ocean that has become the world’s largest landfill. It was formed by a large system of rotating ocean currents called a gyre which create a slowly turning spiral of water. The currents of this gyre have trapped garbage and debris that contain a very high concentration of plastics, thus giving rise to the great Pacific Garbage Patch.

Did you know? By weight, there is six times more plastic than plankton in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

This patch isn’t thick enough to walk on or even to see from a satellite. What happens is plastic mixes with the microscopic sea life (plankton) to make a sort of plastic plankton soup. The size of the Garbage Patch is hard to measure, and estimated sizes differ from media report to media report. Some estimate that it is the size of the province of Quebec, but this remains unproven.

The plastic in this part of the ocean started out as the discarded water bottles, toothbrushes, food wrappers, etc. that we use every day. Much of the plastic we produce ends up in the ocean and isn’t broken down by bacteria (i.e. biodegraded). Instead, it is weakened by the sun’s rays (i.e. photodegraded) and breaks into tiny plastic pieces. Animals like whales and jellyfish gobble up this plastic that mixes with their microscopic food.

Did you know? One third of plankton-eating fish in the Garbage Patch have plastic pieces in their stomachs.

Unfortunately, plastic also concentrates other toxic chemicals, like pesticides, that are present in the oceans. In fact, these chemicals can be one million times more concentrated in floating plastic than in seawater. Harmful concentrated toxins are ingested with the plastic pieces and enter the food chain. Small fish eat the plastic-eating filter feeders, big fish eat the small fish, and the toxins are concentrated as they get passed up the food chain. This means these chemicals can also reach animals at the very top of the food chain, including humans.

Cleaning up the Garbage Patch would consume a great deal of time, fuel and resources. As researchers contemplate their options, individuals can focus on using and throwing away less plastic, thus reducing the amount of waste that enters our oceans.

Learn More

Discover Magazine – Better Planet: The World’s Largest Dump:The Great Pacific Garbage Patch

The Independent –The world’s rubbish dump: a tip thatstretches from Hawaii to Japan

References

Moore C (2003) Trashed: Across the Pacific Ocean,Plastics, Plastics, Everywhere, NaturalHistory, 112 (9).

Mato Y., Isobe T., Takada H., Kanehiro H., Ohtake C., and Kaminuma T. (2001) Plastic Resin Pellets as a Transport Medium of Toxic Chemicalsin the Marine Environment., Environ. Sci. Technol., 35: 318-324, 2001.

Rios LM, Jones PR, Moore C, and Narayan UV (2010)Quantitation of persistent organic pollutants absorbed on plastic debris fromthe Northern Pacific Gyre’s “Eastern Garbage Patch”, J. Environ. Monit., 12:2226-2236.

Moore W, Moore SL, Leecaster MK, and Weisburg SB (2001),A Comparison of Plastic and Plankton in the North Pacific Central Gyre, Mar. Pollut. Bull., 42 (12): 1297-300.

Boerger CM, Lattin GL, Moore SL, and Moore CJ (2010) Plastic ingestion byplanktinovorous fishes in the North Pacific Central Gyre, Mar. Pollut. Bull., 60 (12): 2275-78.

Article first published June 14, 2011

Jenna Capyk

I am a graduate student working toward my PhD at the University of British Columbia in sunny / rainy Vancouver. I study proteins from Mycobacterium tuberculosis that are involved in how the bacteria cause human disease, and we hope that someday this work could lead to new drugs to treat tuberculosis. I also love reading about the brain and all the crazy things it can do when it's working right, and when it's not!

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