The Great Pacific Garbage Patch - A New Continent Emerging on the Surface of the Earth

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, also known as the Pacific Trash Vortex, is made up of large patches of marine debris. These huge spinning debris clusters are reported to be as big as twice the size of Texas and consist of materials ranging from plastic bottles to refrigerators and commercial fishing nets.

In addition to large visible objects, these garbage patches are also full of a material called "microplastics". These tiny pieces of plastic actually account for most of the debris and are barely visible to the naked eye. The fragments usually come from plastic materials, such as soda bottles, that have been broken down by the ocean (like sea glass) and range from 0.3 to 5 millimeters in diameter.

The entire Great Pacific Garbage Patch is contained within the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre in the North Pacific Ocean, between Hawaii and California. Gyre's are ocean systems created by circular ocean currents, which are influenced by the Earth's wind patterns and the rotation of the planet. The center of the gyre tends to be a low-pressure zone, similar to the eye of a hurricane, which makes conditions calm and stable.

  Operation SeaNet's map of the world showing the 6 main ocean gyres.

Operation SeaNet's map of the world showing the 6 main ocean gyres.

These gyres are prone to collecting materials because this mid-section is where warm water from the south meets cooler water from the north, which produces a conveyer belt system that moves trash from one patch to another.

Scientists used to believe that most of the debris in the garbage patch could be found on the surface. But according to recent reports, researchers have discovered that up to 70% of the marine debris actually sinks to the bottom of the ocean, which creates an underwater trash heap.

According to National Geographic, roughly 80% of the debris in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch can be traced to land-based activities in North America and Asia. Trash takes six years to reach the patch if coming from North America and about a year if coming from Asia. The remaining 20% of debris comes from commercial fishing boats, offshore rigs and shipping containers.

The primary reason we don't know very much about these garbage patches is because they are very difficult to physically reach. They are located in "dead zones" where very little wind exists, so you can’t sail through them. If you can't sail, you must use a motor boat. However, because of the amount of floating debris, this becomes a dangerous activity. Motoring through extensive areas of debris can ruin your propeller or even your engine. Hitting an object hidden below the surface can cause severe damage to boats and cause them to take on water. To complicate matters further, if you're 1,000 miles or more from land (which is where the garbage patch resides) rescue operations can take one week or more. 

But the debris doesn't just pose a hazard for humans. Marine mammals ingest the micro-plastic material when feeding on smaller fish as it all gets ‘scooped up’ together, and turtles often mistake plastic bags for jellyfish. Seals, dolphins and other larger mammals also get caught in fishing nets, leading to drownings, which is why this phenomenon has been coined "ghost fishing."

So how do we begin to clean up one of the biggest environmental disasters of the century? One Dutch organization, the Ocean Cleanup, has set out to do just that. The organization was founded in 2013 by then 19-year-old entrepreneur, Boyan Slat, who developed an ocean cleaning mechanism in order to address the problem. The apparatus is designed to rest on the ocean's surface and use the ocean's currents to capture plastic, while sea life and ocean water flow by unobstructed below. 

The organization has run several successful research missions to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and aims to deploy its first pilot mechanism in 2017. If successful, this passive system could theoretically remove about half the garbage in ten years.

While organizations such as the Ocean Cleanup are integral to fixing the ocean's plastic pollution crisis, every human is also responsible and should aim to do their part too. We need to drastically limit or eliminate the use of disposable plastic and focus on biodegradable materials as much as possible.

Next time you're at the grocery store, opt to bring your own bags instead of using plastic ones. If you can buy drinks made out of glass or aluminum, even better. Keep in mind that every single item you throw into the garbage could wind up in our oceans. The more we think about these consequences, the better off our planet will be.