The Great Pacific Garbage Patch

Cohen, Kathleen

Govoni, Paul

Mink, Thea

Strand, Sarah


  • Student project for course taught by Colin Orians
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We live in a plastic world. Everything from water bottles to beach toys to grocery bags is made of plastic. What happens when a plastic bottle ends up in the ocean? Marine debris, especially in plastic forms, is a serious and growing problem. Many plastics that land in the Pacific Ocean eventually accumulate in a sort of aquatic landfill.
he salty plastic soup is known as the Great Pacific garbage patch. Despite popular belief, the Great Pacific garbage patch is not a blanket of debris. While small clumps of floating trash do exist, the garbage patch is best described as a wide expanse of ocean littered with an unfathomable amount of tiny plastic particles.
In fact, many of these particles are not even visible with the naked eye. Some portion of the plastics found in the garbage patch originate from naval and commercial shipping fleets. These vessels carelessly dump plastic containers overboard every day. However, the majority of plastics, approximately 80%, is discarded on land.
Wind may blow trash from landfills and littered streets into nearby streams, rivers, and storm drains which eventually deposit the debris in the ocean. Litter from beaches is another source. Once the debris lands in the ocean four main currents which make up the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre transport the plastic waste.
The interaction of smaller currents and the climate create two calmer patches--one in the east and one in the west where debris accumulates. Together, these areas make up the Great Pacific garbage patch. As expected, this collection of oceanic debris has adversely affected many marine species.
Marine debris effects nearly 50% of marine mammal and bird species and approximately 90% of sea turtle species. Ingesting plastic is a common problem for a wide variety of marine species. Marine debris typically follows the path of ocean currents which is also where many marine animals feed.
Birds, including the Laysan albatross as well as larger marine creatures, like sea turtles, often mistake floating plastic particles for food. When sea birds eat tiny plastic particles they become full without gaining any valuable nutrients. As a result, these animals may starve to death.
Birds that regurgitate their food may also accidentally feed plastic particles to their chicks causing even more mortality. Sea turtles also mistake plastic for food. Floating bags can look similar to jelly fish—a key part of their diet. Even if animals do not ingest plastic particles, chemicals leached from plastic still exists in the water and present other health risks.
Chemicals in plastics have been known to alter hormone levels, increase the risk of disease, and cause reproductive defects in many sea birds and fish. When organisms at the bottom of the food chain consume plastics, the toxic effects of plastics are magnified in higher level predators through a process known as bioaccumulation.
Lastly, entanglement is an issue for both birds and sea turtles. Plastics can choke animals and inhibit their growth and movement. Clearly, humans have caused the creation of the Great Pacific garbage patch, since plastics take decades to decompose completely, we must focus our efforts on limiting the amount of future marine debris that pollutes the Pacific.
Over consumption is a major issue. We must try to use less plastic on a day to day basis. Instead of buying disposable plastic water bottles, use a reusable one. Ask for paper instead of plastic at the grocery store or better yet bring a tote bag or backpack.
Avoid using styrofoam, attend beach clean ups and spend the time to properly dispose of recyclables and wastes. Lobby your city, state, or even national government to enact policies such as plastic bag bans and taxes that protect our oceans