The Pacific Garbage Patch sounds like something from a dystopian novel. It’s literally an enormous patch of garbage floating in the northern Pacific Ocean, weighing about seven million tons and occupying about twice the space of the state of Texas. But before you picture a literal island of garbage, like a garbage-based iceberg of Titanic proportions, think again: the patch isn’t all big, recognizable chunks of plastic. Much of it is composed of millions of tiny pieces of plastic, chemical sludge, or other debris – particles so tiny, in fact, that the patch is barely even visible to the naked eye. They remain trapped there due to the circular currents of the North Pacific Gyre which creates a sort of bowl effect.
Despite the patch’s enormous size, since it has a relatively low density of about 4 particles per cubic meter, even boaters can pass through portions of the patch without realizing it. So it’s not as big a deal as we originally thought, then, right? Actually, yes, and it has a lot to do with photodegradation. Organic debris, like paper, biodegrades over time, meaning it’s broken down by bacteria, fungi, or some other means. But plastics do not biodegrade; instead, they photodegrade after long-term exposure to sunlight, during which particles become ever-smaller, but still essentially retaining the chemical composition of plastics. That’s a problem, because even microscopic debris particles that have spent a significant amount of time photodegrading can interfere with wildlife when ingested. For example, albatrosses mistake small plastic pieces for food, even feeding them to their young. This blocks their digestive tracts and prevents them from absorbing nutrients from actual food, often causing death. Not only can they cause impaction, but the plastic pieces also often collect chemical pollutants from sea water, leading to various health issues when ingested by other marine animals.
Where did all these tiny plastic pieces even come from? The majority start out as everyday items like plastic water bottles, grocery bags, and plastic rings that hold together six-packs of soda. Before the photodegradation process occurs and animals can ingest the microplastics, the larger items cause their own significant problems: six-pack rings have been known to entangle and kill birds and turtles, and recently, a beached whale was found on the coast of Norway with about 30 plastic bags in its stomach, which researchers believe to have caused it to become impacted and unable to digest food. Some ideas have been put into practice to deal with the issue, including recycling the ocean’s plastic waste into new items, but we have yet to see if it will make a dent in the giant Pacific Garbage Patch.