BY CHEYENNE ELLIS ’21
A new study published in the Scientific Journal estimates that the total area of the so-called “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” is anywhere from four to 16 times as large as originally thought, according to The New York Times. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is the world’s largest floating “junkyard” of trash, where plastics and other objects accumulate in mass quantities. Al Werner, a geology professor at Mount Holyoke, explained how these oceanic wastelands came into formation. “Ocean circulation forms large gyres in the ocean basins and a phenomenon called ‘Ekman transport’ moves water and debris toward the center of these gyres,” he said. “Because much of the garbage that ends up in the oceans floats, it gets concentrated into large patches and impacts marine life.”
Located between California and Hawaii, there are many myths surrounding what the garbage patch looks like. Nancy Wallace, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Marine Debris Program told The New York Times that “the name ‘patch’ is a little bit confusing” and suggests that it “would be easy to go pick it up.” In reality, it is just a vast area of floating debris and there is no physical “island” that can be easily collected.
Past studies have indicated that the majority of the garbage had been broken down into microplastics which, being nearly invisible, are almost impossible to clean up. These microplastics are eaten by fish and have the potential to appear in the human food chain through seafood consumption. While plenty of this is still occurring, new reports now believe the majority of the patch is larger plastics, with microplastics only accounting for eight percent of the total patch, according to The New York Times. Cleaning larger plastic is at least possible, but should the issue continue to go ignored over the next few decades, the amount of microplastics will increase exponentially and cleanup efforts will be impractical and ineffective.
Samples taken from the patch show that 99.9 percent of the waste is plastic, according to The New York Times. Single-use plastic containers and wrappings are large contributors, but the largest source of trash comes from the fishing industry. According to National Geographic, at least 46 percent of the predicted 79,000 tons of trash in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch are seafood traps, nets, crates and baskets.
The potential hazards resulting from a sea of plastics are extensive. Marine life frequently becomes entangled in plastic and mistakes the brightly colored objects for food. Plastic waste in the ocean is rapidly decreasing biodiversity and has the ability to bioaccumulate in seafood, potentially impacting human health. National Geographic estimates that 100,000 marine animals and birds are killed by plastics each year.
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is just one of five plastic collection sites in the ocean and unfortunately, traditional cleaning methods are useless in respect to the enormous expansion of the issue. The Ocean Cleanup Foundation, started by a Dutch teenager named Boyan Slate, has developed a system with the potential to efficiently remove ocean plastics and plans to launch it this summer, according to National Geographic. But unless new plastics stop entering the ocean, restoration efforts will be ineffective. Research scientist Britta Denise Hardesty spoke to CNN about halting the inflow of plastics.
“Plastic pollution in the ocean is visible and trackable,” she said. “We can definitely make a difference in how we vote with our pocketbook and think about each decision we make, whether we take our own bags to the supermarkets, refuse straws, bring our own coffee cups, accept single-use items or think about mindful alternatives.”
Kiely Quinn ’21 is one of many Mount Holyoke students who are using knowledge about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch to inform their consumption decisions. “Now that I know [about] this I’m trying to be more active in eliminating my plastic usage.”