A new study involving scientists from around the world estimates there are more than 79,000 tonnes of ocean plastic in a 1.6 million square kilometre area of the North Pacific Ocean, commonly referred to as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
An enormous area of rubbish floating in the Pacific Ocean, known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, is teeming with far more debris than previously thought, heightening alarm that the world’s oceans are being increasingly choked by trillions of pieces of plastic.
The sprawling patch of detritus – spanning 1.6m sq km, (617,763 sq miles) more than twice the size of France – contains at least 79,000 tons of plastic, new research published in Nature has found. This mass of waste is up to 16 times larger than previous estimates and provides a sobering challenge to a team that will start an ambitious attempt to clean up the vast swath of the Pacific this summer.
79,000 tons is “the equivalent to the mass of more than 6,500 school buses.” Helen Thompson, Science News
The analysis, conducted by boat and air surveys taken over two years, found that pollution in the so-called Great Pacific Garbage Patch is almost exclusively plastic and is “increasing exponentially”. Microplastics, measuring less than 0.5cm (0.2in), make up the bulk of the estimated 1.8tn pieces floating in the garbage patch, which is kept in rough formation by a swirling ocean gyre.
While tiny fragments of plastic are the most numerous, nearly half of the weight of rubbish is composed of discarded fishing nets. Other items spotted in the stew of plastic include bottles, plates, buoys, ropes and even a toilet seat.
Fishing nets and ropes make up 47% of the plastic mass in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a new study suggests. Photo: NOAA A sea turtle entangled in a ghost net. Photo by Francis Perez
“I’ve been doing this research for a while, but it was depressing to see,” said Laurent Lebreton, an oceanographer and lead author of the study. Lebreton works for the Ocean Cleanup, a Dutch-based non-profit that is aiming to tackle the garbage patch. “There were things you just wondered how they made it into the ocean. There’s clearly an increasing influx of plastic into the garbage patch.”
Particles smaller than half a centimeter, called microplastics, account for 94% of the pieces, but only 8% of the overall mass. In contrast, large (5 to 50 centimeters) and extra-large (bigger than 50 centimeters) pieces made up 25% and 53% of the estimated patch mass. Much of the plastic in the patch comes from humans’ ocean activities, such as fishing and shipping, the researchers found. Almost half of the total mass, for example, is from discarded fishing nets. A lot of that litter contains especially durable plastics, such as polyethylene and polypropylene, which are designed to survive in marine environments. Helen Thompson, Science News
“We need a coordinated international effort to rethink and redesign the way we use plastics. The numbers speak for themselves. Things are getting worse and we need to act now.”
. . . The problem of plastic pollution is gaining traction in diplomatic circles, with nearly 200 countries signing on to a UN resolution last year that aims to stem the flood of plastic into the oceans. However, the agreement has no timetable and is not legally binding.
Dr Clare Steele, a California-based marine ecologist who was not involved in the research, said the study provided “great progress” in understanding the composition of the Great Pacific garbage patch.
But she regretted that while removing larger items, such as ghost fishing nets, would help wildlife, the clean-up would not deal with the colossal amount of microplastic.
“Those plankton-sized pieces of plastic are pretty difficult to clean up,” she said. “The only way is to address the source and that will require a radical shift on how we use materials, particularly single-use plastic such as cutlery, straws and bottles that are so durable.
“We need to reduce waste and come up with new, biodegradable alternatives to plastic. But one of the easiest steps is changing the way we use and discard the more ephemeral plastic products.”
And while Eriksen supports initiatives like The Ocean Cleanup Foundation, which plans to use nets to collect ocean plastic, he says that’s not a solution by itself.
“I applaud them for going after the big stuff in the middle of the ocean. That’s great,” he said. “We need to keep those nets from shredding into microplastics. But it’s disingenuous to say you’re cleaning the oceans when you’re doing nothing to stop the flow of trash at land and sea.”
Eriksen said that what’s needed is a wide-scale effort beginning at the source.
“Policy has to have [manufacturers] clean up their act,” he said. “And make smarter products and think of the full life cycle; stop making something that, when it becomes waste, becomes a nightmare for everyone.”
Both Lebreton and Eriksen would like to see less single-use plastic as well as a focus on cleaning up beaches and shores, before it makes its ways into our oceans.
“We’ve created a monster with plastic,” Lebreton said. “This [study] shows the urgency of the situation and shows that we need to act quickly.”
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Great Pacific Garbage Patch is 16 times bigger than previously estimated, study finds
Sample collected during 2015 expedition was mostly microplastics less than 0.5 cm in diameter
By Nicole Mortillaro, CBC News, March 22, 2018