Pollution has been a major issue worldwide for years. While there are varying opinions on the impact of pollution on our environment, there is no denying garbage has accumulated in various areas on Earth over the years, including our oceans. This has led to the formation of garbage patches, massive accumulations of garbage found in specific locations in the ocean. Located in ocean gyres, which are systems of circular ocean currents, these patches could have a major impact on our planet's future.
Many areas of the world's oceans are littered with plastic and other substances dumped out from equally polluted rivers, eventually accumulating through tides and currents into these large masses of trash hovering on the water's surface. These trash islands can cause environmental issues and have an especially devastating effect on marine life. These effects range, from negative, direct-impact consequences to gradual ones, such as increasing the environment's level of carbon dioxide through plastics being broken down in an organism's metabolism.
The five biggest ocean garbage patches are located across the globe, found in the Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian Oceans. While the North Pacific patch (or, as it is more widely known, the Great Pacific garbage patch) is the most discussed, explored, and evaluated, the other four patches also contribute to global pollution on a major scale. Scientists and environmentalists are currently at work exploring ways to clean our oceans, often specifically targeting these patches. Below is a list of these five major patches, along with their size, their impact on the environment, and what (if any) efforts are being made to slow their harmful effects and improve ocean health.
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch
Location: The North Pacific Gyre (in the North Pacific Ocean between California and Hawaii)
Size: This garbage patch is the largest in the world when all factors are considered. It contains 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic, is estimated to weigh around 80,000 tons, and cover a surface of approximately 617,763 square miles (1.6 million square kilometers). The patch is also constantly growing as up to 2.41 million tons of plastic and garbage enter the ocean each year.
Impact: The input of garbage in the patch is significantly larger than its output, as indicated by periodic measurements conducted since the 1970s; thus, without interference, the patch will continue to grow. When the pieces of plastic in the patch inevitably deteriorate into microplastics from factors like sun exposure and waves, the segments become extremely difficult to remove and threaten any marine life that may ingest the plastic. If any consumers of the microplastics are caught and consumed by humans, the chemicals from the plastics will be passed up the food chain.
Plan for Cleanup: While the task of cleaning the patch is often deemed financially insurmountable, generally estimated to cost around $13 billion, a new device may provide a solution. The first ever ocean plastic cleaner, a product of the Dutch nonprofit organization Ocean Cleanup, planned to disembark from San Francisco sometime in 2018.
In September 2018, Ocean Cleanup put their plan into motion. Using enormous screens held together by giant tubes, the device can strategically suck waste out of the ocean. The environmental group brought the device to a testing site near San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge. If things work out, the device will then head to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The organization believes they'll be able to gather 50 tons of plastic in its first year alone.
Ocean Cleanup hopes to eventually deploy 60 of these devices over time.
The North Atlantic Garbage Patch
Location: North Atlantic Gyre (spanning from the equator to Iceland, North American, Europe, and Africa)
Size: Precise measurements of the North Atlantic Garbage patch are unknown but scientists think it is hundreds of miles in size. The patch likely has a particle density somewhere around 7,220 pieces per square kilometer.
Impact: Many specimens of marine species have been found post-mortem with stomachs filled with particles of plastic. Much like the risks of any garbage patch, the North Atlantic patch may harm humans if the marine lifeforms who have eaten plastic particles are eventually consumed by people.
Plan for Cleanup: Cleanup for this and many other garbage patches has been deemed impossible due to the risks posed to sea organisms by removing sections of trash, though The Ocean Cleanup is currently researching solutions to this issue.
The South Pacific Garbage Patch
Location: South Pacific Gyre (in the South Pacific Ocean between Australia and South America)
Size: The patch is estimated to have a surface area of 1 million square miles (2.6 square kilometers) and a particle density of approximately 396,342 particles per square mile in the center of the patch.
Impact: Due to the patch's relatively recent discovery, having only been confirmed in 2017, its effect have yet to be extensively studied. Like any garbage patch, however, there is still a substantial risk pertaining to the health of the marine life. Due to sun and weather exposure, the plastics will eventually break down into segments so small that even microorganisms can consume them, eventually turning the particles into carbon dioxide.
Plan for Cleanup: No programs are in place to counteract this patch specifically, although The Ocean Cleanup is organizing attempts to address marine pollution as a whole.
The Indian Ocean Garbage Patch
Location: Indian Ocean Gyre (in the Indian Ocean)
Size: Due to its remote location, the Indian Ocean garbage patch is difficult to study. Some studies estimate its size at 843,046 square miles (2,183,480 square kilometers), although some put it as high as 2 million square miles (5 million square kilometers).
Impact: As the patch has not been widely studied, its effects are not fully understood. However, like all patches, the debris have been linked to the death of wildlife like sea turtles and birds whose intestines became entangled after consuming garbage. Fish are often contaminated from the chemicals in the water from the patch and pass on these contaminants to people via seafood.
Plan for Cleanup: While no specific plans to clean the Indian Ocean garbage patch are evident, in 2013, artist Maria Cristina Finucci founded the Garbage Patch state in order to raise awareness for global pollution. Though this act was inspired specifically by the Great Pacific garbage patch, the project encompasses all five major instances of oceanic pollution around the globe.
The South Atlantic Garbage Patch
Location: South Atlantic Gyre (in the southern portion of the Atlantic Ocean)
Size: The South Atlantic Garbage patch is fairly small in comparison to other patches. This patch covers roughly 276,263 square miles (715,520 square kilometers), has a particular density of 40,000 pieces per kilometer, and contains about 2,860 tons of plastic.
Impact: The projected impact of this patch is difficult to determine; however, many of the same conclusions may be drawn between the larger patches’ environmental effects and what effects may eventually result from this South Atlantic patch, including marine life consumption of plastics and an increase of carbon dioxide output.
Plan for Cleanup: No current plans are in place to clean up this patch specifically, though a Kickstarter campaign was started in 2010 by PhD student Chelsea Rochman to fund an exploration of the South Atlantic and to research solutions to marine pollution; the fundraiser garnered $2,425, surpassing its $2,350 goal.