It’s estimated that there is around 5.25 trillion pieces of rubbish and debris in our oceans.
What's more, is that a lot of this rubbish is accumulating in massive garbage patches floating in our oceans that are growing bigger each day. That’s especially thanks to the increasing global consumption and production of plastic.
Approximately we are now producing 300 million tonnes of plastic each year around the world, and its estimated up to 50% of that is single use plastics. In the last 10 years alone, we have produced more plastic than the entire plastic production of the last century (The first fully synthetic polymer plastic was invented in 1907 which you could say is nearly one lifetime ago). We are at a point now where globally 1 million plastic drinking bottles are purchased every minute. Approx. 8 Million tonnes of plastic eventually ends up in the oceans each year. Over 85% of marine birds are found to have some amounts of plastic in their systems... the list goes on and it's scary as s%$t. Check out this great article here to get more information on global plastic pollution facts.
Rivers are carrying most of this rubbish and plastic into oceans from runoff and drainage directly from our towns and cities around the globe, or wherever there is human activity there seems to be rubbish. In the end, the ocean's currents eventually bring together and create massive areas of garbage and waste.
These giant garbage patches in the middle of our oceans are a result of the ocean currents that circulate the globe and accumulate debris in vortex’s where gyres/ocean currents converge. Traditionally a gyre is a system of swirling ocean currents however more recently it’s also becoming known as a vortex of accumulated ocean debris and rubbish.
It doesn’t need to be said that these trash patches cause serious environmental issues especially to the marine life. The effects can have direct impacts on surround marine life, for example fishnets have a devastating effect on marine that become entangled in it.
Another major impact that is not easily visible but can be far more dangerous and threatening to ocean ecosystems, is a little something called “microplastics”. If cleaning up oceans wasn’t hard enough, micro plastics are making it even harder. After time when the larger pieces of plastic and debris are exposed to the sun, they break down and disintegrate into microplastics smaller than 5mm... which makes it more difficult to collect and filter out of our oceans. The microplastics are commonly ingested by the surrounding marine life which can often have fatal consequences when continuous amounts are ingested. These microplastics and chemicals can also be passed up through the food chain and end up in human consumption as well.
Currently there are five areas of garbage that accumulate across the oceans. What’s more, most are growing causing more harm to the environment. These trash collections are located in the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans. As much as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is the most well-known and discussed, there are another four others making up a massive amount of rubbish that’s affecting ecosystems.
1. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
Location: North Pacific between the coast of California and North of Hawaii and extending towards Japan.
Size: 1.6 million square kilometres.
Status: Clean up operations have begun removing huge amounts of waste.
This area of trash is also known as the Pacific trash vortex and is arguably the most well-known and studied. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a convergence of two growing garbage patches in the middle of the North Pacific between the Californian coast and Japan. More to that, this garbage results from the Pacific Rim which is feed by currents from South America, North America and Asia.
The garbage patch has been estimated to contain around 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic and debris which is estimated to weigh over eighty thousand tons. This massive patch of rubbish covers estimated area of around 1.6 million square kilometres… 1,600,000 square kilometres is an incredibly huge area. To put that into perspective that’s around twice the size of the state of New South Wales, well over twice the size of Texas, three times the size France or nearly the size of Queensland!
2. The South Pacific Garbage Patch.
Location: Southern Pacific Ocean 1100+ km off the coast of Chile.
Size: Estimates range from 2.6 - 3 million square kilometres of microplastics and tiny particles.
The South Pacific Garbage Patch is located in the South Pacific Ocean off the coast of South America. Unlike other ocean garbage patches, the South Pacific garbage patch consists mainly of microplastics and tiny debris particles that appear as a cloudy smog.
The patch was first discovered in 2011 and further studied in 2016, it was confirmed that microplastics and pollutants were found across an area stretching approx. 2.6 million to 3 million square kilometres, its immense size is larger than Western Australia. Regardless of the fact it’s made up of tiny particles this cloudy plastic area is causing a substantial impact on the health of the marine life within the area.
3. Disappearing Indian Ocean Garbage Patch.
Location: Indian/Southern Indian Ocean.
Size: Small collection of debris scattered across the Indian ocean region.
Status: Accumulating and disappearing.
The Indian Ocean garbage patch isn’t a continuous debris field but rather patches of small particles scattered over specific areas that are consistently forming and disappearing.
The Indian Ocean receives some of the largest amounts of plastic debris from the Asian and Indonesian rivers that flow into it. What makes this strange is that this massive amount of waste and debris doesn’t build up and accumulate in patches the same way the other ocean gyres do. This is due to the oceanic and atmospheric conditions that occur in the Indian Ocean resulting in stronger trade winds that moves a lot of the debris towards the African continent and ultimately into the currents that feed the Atlantic Ocean gyres.
Like many other garbage patches, the Indian Ocean garbage patch can have fatal consequences for the wildlife such as sea turtles and birds. The birds or sea turtles commonly die from entanglement or consuming excess amounts of rubbish. On top of this the chemical pollutants resulting from the accumulated debris is also contaminating fish and other marine life.
4. The North Atlantic Garbage Patch.
Location: North Atlantic, East of Bermuda.
Size: Accurate size estimates undetermined.
Status: Steady constant size.
The North Atlantic garbage patch is located off the east coast of the US and consists mainly of tiny plastics. This debris floats within the North Atlantic gyre and has been documented over the last 22 years.
Due to the size of the microplastics being significantly small and varying in density there are estimates of its size that ranges from a few hundred kilometres across up to 800 km across, other sources estimate the size to be similar to its infamous cousin in the North Pacific but is unconfirmed. Densities of up to 200,000 pieces of plastic per kilometre have been recorded in certain areas of this garbage patch.
Like every floating garbage patch around the world, the North Atlantic Garbage patch causes harm to the surrounding marine life.
5. The South Atlantic Garbage Patch.
Location: Southern Atlantic Ocean.
Size: Insufficient data to determine.
Status: Unknown, insufficient studies.
The South Atlantic Garbage Patch is located at the South Atlantic Gyre. There hasn't been a lot of studies carried out on this garbage patch so there is not a lot of data documented to date. This makes it difficult to determine the size or give any solid and informative information.
Bringing it all together:
Without a doubt, if our global consumption of plastic continues on this trajectory we are going to risk irreparably damaging not only ocean ecosystems but also ecosystems on the land as well.
We only recycle around 9% of the total plastics that are produced... 9% is next to nothing considering the majority ends up as landfill. Recycling is just one area we need to get better at, and we need more companies innovating technology to improve the efficiency of recycling. Reducing our use of single use plastics is another massive improvement that needs more attention.
There are billions of humans on this planet, if we all make small changes with how much plastics we use we can make huge strides in combating the ever growing plastic pollution. We don't have to be perfect but by taking some form of action no matter how small is better than not taking any action at all. Though it can feel like it's a helpless and losing battle, remember that the petrochemical companies producing these plastics are only doing it because there is a demand for it, if we reduce our consumption we can help reduce the amount of plastic and rubbish that enters our environment.
One of the best things you can do is simply educating yourself on these issues and solutions.
If you are unsure of what you can do or where to start then check out this list of 10 easy things you can start doing to help reduce the impact we are having on our oceans and planet.
After decades of mass production there is no quick fix, but we definitely have the power to do it and I certainly believe we will.
Thanks for reading!