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North Pacific Gyre Garbage Patch

North Pacific Gyre – Garbage patch

What is it? - The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a collection of marine debris in the North Pacific Ocean. There are actually two patches of similar size, one lies in a high-pressure area between the U.S. states of Hawaii and California and the other between Hawaii and the Japan Islands. Although impossible to measure accurately as most of the material is very small and suspended in the ocean’s upper layers, both patches are at least twice the size of the State of Texas.

How did it form? – The garbage patches are in the middle of what is called the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, which is a circular ocean current formed by the Earth’s wind patterns and the forces created by the rotation of the planet. The area in the center of a gyre tends to be very calm and stable. The circular motion of the gyre draws in debris where it becomes trapped, builds up and begins to break up into smaller pieces. The motion of the gyre prevents garbage and other materials from escaping. The amount of material in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch accumulates because much of it is not biodegradable. Many plastics, for instance, do not wear down; they simply break into tinier and tinier pieces. [1]

What are the effects? - Scientists have collected up to 750,000 bits of plastic in a single square kilometer (or 1.9 million bits per square mile) of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Plastic products can be very harmful to marine life in the gyre. For instance, loggerhead sea turtles often mistake plastic bags for jellyfish, their favorite food. The plastic rings used to hold six-packs of soda together have also strangled many marine mammals and birds. As micro-plastics and other trash collect on the surface of the ocean, they block sunlight from reaching plankton and algae below. If algae and plankton communities are threatened, the entire food web is endangered. Many fish and marine species, including whales, feed on algae and plankton. If those animals start to die, there will be less food for predator species such as tuna, sharks and sea turtles. Another problem with plastic is that it doesn't biodegrade. Instead, plastic photo degrades. A piece of plastic cast out to sea will fragment into smaller and smaller pieces of plastic without breaking into simpler compounds. These tiny plastic particles can get sucked up by filter feeders and damage their bodies. Other marine animals eat the plastic, which can poison them or lead to deadly blockages. Called “nurdles” these small pieces of plastic also have the insidious property of soaking up toxic chemicals that can be consumed by fish, birds and mammals. [2]

What can be done? - Cleaning the Great Pacific Garbage Patch has been a goal of green organizations for years. However, many recognize the task is next to impossible. According to scientists from the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, the patch is just too large and too "broken down" to be cleanable. A more feasible option would be to clean as much surface debris as possible, scooping out the larger pieces. Project Kaisei is a San Francisco-based nonprofit organization studying the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The ultimate goal of the organization is to find a way to "capture" (rather than "clean") 40 tons of plastic so it can then be recycled. If that works, the group would then move on to capturing larger amounts at a time. The organization is trying to come up with new methods that will allow for a cleanup of the garbage without hurting marine life in the process. In the end, the best thing that can be done for ocean debris is to stop producing it. Pushing for more recycling programs and reducing the amount of plastic we use and dispose of will also make a difference.

– Created by Scott Fletcher, Library Director


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