The Great Pacific Garbage Patch

The Pacific Garbage Patch, this terrifying marine landfill, is located inside the North Atlantic Gyre, between the east coast of Japan and the Californian coast of the US. Far from being the only garbage patch, it is the largest one present in the oceans. Its size is difficult to know for sure, but the Ocean Cleanup has estimated it at 1.6 million square kilometres - which is the size of Texas or three times the surface of France. Its weight has been calculated at approximately 80,000 tonnes or the equivalent of 500 cargo jets. The centre of the gyre is relatively calm and the plastic gets drawn to it, then it gets trapped inside.

Figure 1 North Atlantic Gyre by Marine Debris

Figure 1 North Atlantic Gyre by Marine Debris

The content of the Patch is quite diverse. 80% of the marine litter comes from land-based activities, and 20% are marine related: fishing nets - 46% of the marine-based litter is made of fishing nets - plastic lines, ropes… Microplastics (between 0.05 and 0.5cm) are also present in a very important amount - they are the most dangerous source of marine debris. And then, there are some macroplastics (between 5 and 50cm) such as legos, hard hat, crate or plastic bottles and megaplastics (bigger than 50cm) such as household items and electronics (Ocean Cleanup).

One of the issues with the patch, is that, there is not one patch but several in the North Atlantic Gyre. There is the Eastern Garbage Patch between California and Hawaii, the Western Garbage Patch between Japan and Hawaii and then there is the Subtropical Convergence Patch. Which means, it is very difficult to assess the full weight, size and danger of the patch and most importantly how to clean it up. Moreover, satellite images are not helpful: from the sky, the patches are merely invisible. ‘Patch’ is not an appropriate name for such a problem because if we were to go to the Pacific Ocean, we would be expecting a sort of plastic blanket over the water. However, microplastics are mostly invisible to the naked eye and a lot of the plastics are present just below the surface or settle at the bottom of the ocean (National Geographic).

Nevertheless, it is not because we do not see it clearly, that this marine landfill is not dangerous. It is extremely dangerous for several reasons. Animals can get caught in the floating fishing nets and not be able to free themselves - animals such as turtles or similar sized fishes. The 6-pack plastic beer holder is also popular inside the patch. Marine animals as baby will fit in and then grow around the holder. Straws get stuck inside marine animals’ nose or orifice. Some animals’ species are endangered because of the waste in the ocean (Ocean Cleanup), (National Geographic).

Moreover, microplastics - being so small - are ingested by animals, who then go on feeding their babies or ended up being eaten by a bigger predator. Turtles and birds mainly feed from the surface of the oceans. Some plastics films can be even mistaken for jellyfish (LIM).  Microplastics, therefore, enter the marine food chain. People who eat fish and other marine animals, will likely end up with some microplastics in their system too. The long-term impact of microplastics on earthlings is still unsure but plastic being a toxic product, it cannot do any good to any of us (Ocean Cleanup).

Some of the plastics present in the North Atlantic Gyre are dated from the 80s or earlier. Cans can take up to 200 years to decompose, nappies up to 450 years and some plastics never fully decompose - they break down into smaller and smaller pieces until it cannot break anymore – and the plastics persist forever. The famous take-away coffee cup - can take 450 years. A plastic bottle, 450 years too; a plastic bag takes between 10 and 500 years to break down. Plastic straws are on 1000 years, same for a plastic toothbrush. In the last 20 years, the amount of plastics and waste in the ocean has expanded 10 times faster than expected. And in 50 years, they will be more plastic in the ocean than fish (Plastic Odyssey), (Maritime Executive).

Solutions are not numerous but among them is the Ocean Cleanup’s project to use the natural oceanic current to catch the plastic - “to catch plastic, act like plastic”. This plastic will then be recycled and turned into everyday items - phones, sunglasses, tote bags and so on. Another idea comes from Plastic Odyssey: using the plastic in the ocean or on land to fuel, for the moment, a boat but the technology could be used to fuel cars, houses. Those are big projects on a global level but we can also do a lot on the individual level: reduce the amount of the plastic in your life (buy unpackaged, use reusable cups, bottles and cutlery when going out), learn what your local recycling system, organise a beach clean-up to prevent the plastic to enter in the sea or ocean (if you live near a beach). This issue is a very dangerous one both for us, future generations and the welfare of the ocean and its marine life. We must act, and we must do it now!

By Lumi Talks




I have been living and studying in London for a year now. A year and a half ago, I realised the environmental effects of the agriculture industry on our planet and I decided to become vegan. Being a feminist-environmentalist at heart, I try my best to be gentle to Mama Earth every day.

Instagram: @lumi.talks


Noemie Henry