The Ocean’s Hidden Landfill: The Great Pacific Garbage Patch

Written by Poppy Stringer
May 14, 2024
5 min read

When thinking about the pressing environmental catastrophe that is plastic pollution one might envision sporadic sightings of plastic bottles floating near the ocean's surface.

Perhaps an image like the one above from National Geographic comes to mind therefore it may come as a surprise to learn that there is an accumulation of debris so large in the ocean that it essentially forms its island (made entirely of debris and litter). 

This is known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP), a floating mass of plastic debris, discarded waste and general human negligence. This patch is located in the Pacific Ocean, between the shores of Hawaii and California and is inconceivably large. To put into some perspective, the patch is twice the size of the state of Texas and three times as large as France. 

The GPGP has come to symbolise the global crisis of ocean and plastic pollution and in this blog, we will explore its origins, its impact and what we can do about it.

The Origins of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch

The GPGP was certainly not created overnight, it is a result of decades of overconsumption of single-use plastic and littering. Whilst it was first discovered in 1997 it must have been accumulating for many years before its discovery due to its sheer size. 

Scientists believe this patch was created (alongside its obvious creation which is single-use plastic) due to the nature of ocean currents known as gyres which are a type of current which move in a circular swirling motion. Marine debris is trapped in this whirlpool and eventually accumulates in the calmer water in the middle creating a concentration of debris known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. 

The reason the GPGP is so large is because it is comprised of two patches and currents, one towards the West which pulls in debris from the shore of Japan and one towards the East which is close to California and Mexico pulling in rubbish from these shores.

The patch is almost entirely composed of microplastics which are the tiny plastic particles created as larger single-use plastics such as bottles and bags break down in the water currents. These plastics are so small and light that they float for years in the ocean without breaking down any further, creating an almost invisible yet highly pervasive form of pollution. Alongside these microplastics, the patch is littered with larger items such as fishing and boat gear discarded by humans over the years. 

It is estimated by the Ocean Clean Up organisation that over 1.8 trillion plastic pieces are floating in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which is the equivalent of 250 pieces of debris from every human.

But what are the environmental impacts of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and does it affect humans? 

The consequences of plastic pollution for marine life are dire. The colour and size of microplastics mean they are often mistaken for food by marine organisms, ranging from plankton to large mammals. When these microplastics accumulate in the digestive tracts of these organisms, they can cause blockages, reduce feeding efficiency, lead to malnutrition, and even result in death. This disruption in the normal feeding process can have far-reaching consequences, affecting entire food webs as smaller organisms, contaminated with microplastics, are consumed by larger ones, thereby spreading the impact throughout the ecosystem.

Additionally, the larger debris found in the GPGP such as fishing nets are extremely dangerous for larger animals who get trapped in this equipment and die in their struggle to escape.

The impacts of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch on humans are equally as negative. Whilst it might feel like it is a very faraway issue for us in Britain due to our lack of geographical proximity, this is not the case. 

It impacts the human food chain as chemicals from plastic, which marine life inadvertently ingests, are absorbed into their bodies through a process called bioaccumulation. As these animals are consumed by predators, the chemicals they have ingested move up the food chain until they reach humans, who consume fish and shellfish containing these plastic-derived chemicals.

This raises serious concerns for human health as these microplastics and toxins can be linked to health issues such as adverse immune responses, inflammation of the organs, hormonal disruptions and even cancer. It is impossible to distinguish between fish that have or have not ingested plastic toxins meaning there is no way to tell if the fish we are consuming, even here in Britain contain these chemicals making it a pressing issue globally, not just in the neighbouring countries. 

What can we do about this issue?  

Due to the sheer magnitude of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, it is easy to feel overwhelmed but many tangible steps can be taken to make a difference.

First and foremost we can start by reducing our consumption of single-use plastics. This may seem obvious with the amount this is drilled into us in the news and media but you would be surprised at the number of individuals, businesses and organisations who still use and produce single-use plastic on a mass scale and a regular basis. Making simple changes, such as using reusable bags, cups, cutlery etc can make a huge difference and this should be a priority when looking at tackling the GPGP and plastic pollution in general. 

Additionally, we can support legislation and initiatives aimed at reducing plastic production, implementing stricter waste management practices, and holding corporations accountable for their environmental impact. You can sign the treaty here to help force the United Nations Government Organisations to commit to plastic reduction. 

Finally, you can help stop plastic from reaching the ocean. It is unrealistic to suggest that single-use plastic will be removed from our society entirely shortly, therefore you can take steps to help stop it from reaching the ocean in the first place by participating in events such as beach clean-ups. 

Or you can join the SkootEco community, we have been working to stop ocean plastic pollution through our participation with the Plastic Bank. SkootEco has collected over 100,000 plastic bottles, preventing them from reaching the ocean and subsequently from reaching the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

As a business, you have the opportunity to enrol your team in SkootLife, a program that plants trees and prevents ocean plastic for as low as £2 per month. Or consider incorporating a modest Eco-Contribution on every invoice to aid in the fight against ocean-bound plastic. Whether you run a restaurant, hotel, accounting firm, or marketing agency, this straightforward initiative offers a simple yet impactful way to contribute towards addressing a significant environmental challenge.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch serves as a stark reminder of the urgent need to address plastic pollution and protect our oceans for us and our future generations. By raising awareness, advocating for change and taking meaningful action we can work together to combat this environmental crisis and create a cleaner, greener and healthier planet.

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Written by Poppy Stringer
May 14, 2024
5 min read