Junior Reporter: Cleaning Up a Sea of Plastic

June 27, 2017

Xyza Junior Reporter Caleb S. knows a thing or two about how garbage affects our waterways, marine life, and what we can do to prevent the massive patch of garbage hanging out in the middle of Pacific Ocean from growing. Here’s what he had to report:

Report: Cleaning Up a Sea of Plastic

By Caleb S.

Many Americans are surprised to learn that there is a large amount of mainly plastic trash throughout the world’s oceans. There is a large mass of trash in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (or GPGP). It is approximately 1,235 miles from California, roughly half way between California and Hawaii. The GPGP covers 5,800,000 square miles, which means it is about 35 times the size of the state of California. Nevertheless, you cannot see the Patch from space, because it is mostly made of small bits of plastic.

By NOAA [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Most of the trash in the GPGP is plastic, including bags, caps, bottles, styrofoam cups, plastic pellets, and ghost nets (lost fishing nets afloat in the ocean). The exact amount of trash in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is unknown. It is estimated that 80% of debris in Great Pacific Garbage Patch comes from land-based activities in Asia and North America. The other 20% of trash in the Patch is dumped off boats, ships, and oil rigs (National Geographic, 2017).

Marine plastic pollution has major effects on both marine animals and humans. Sea birds that eat plastic often die, because it fills up their stomachs so they starve to death. Right now, about 90% of seabirds have plastic in their gut, but by 2050, it is predicted that 99% of seabirds will have plastic in them (Wilcox et al., 2015). Animals that live in the water also consume marine trash. In addition, when fish eat plastic, humans eat plastic. Plastic leaches chemicals that are absorbed into the tissue of marine animals that eat the plastic. Humans are thus consuming these chemicals when they eat fish. 93% of Americans age 6 or older test positive for plastic-based chemicals in their blood (Calafat et al., 2008). Many of these chemicals can have negative health impacts on humans.

Other impacts of plastic pollution on sea life include fatalities as a result of drowning, entanglement, and strangulation. In 1997 it was estimated that marine plastic pollution had directly impacted at least 267 species worldwide, including 86% of all sea turtle species, 44% of all seabird species and 43% of all marine mammal species (Laist et al., 1997). Plastic also blocks sunlight from algae and plankton, which convert sunlight into the energy and nutrients that form the base of the marine food web. Therefore, plastic pollution affects everything on the food web.

Since the Great Pacific Garbage Patch’s discovery in 1999, scientists and environmentalists have been trying to find a way to clean it up. Scientists are going through the Patch to collect samples to research how plastic affects marine animals. Scientists are also trying to learn as much as they can about the patch, such as, what happens to plastic in the ocean over time (Cozar et al., 2014).

Many people are educating others about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Non-profit organizations and research institutions such as Save Our Shores and the National Geographic Society provide education through websites, ocean voyages, and organizing beach and creek clean up events. On one beach clean up day in 2008 about 400,000 volunteers in 104 countries cleaned up 3,000,000 kg of trash. On that same global clean up day, 43 different kinds of trash were collected and documented (Earle, 2009).

Others have ideas about how to clean up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Information from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) suggests that using boats to simply scoop up the trash would be costly and time consuming. NOAA (2017) estimates that cleaning up just 1% of the GPGP area would take 67 ships one full year, at a minimum cost of $120,000,000. In addition, most plastic is the same size as sea animals, so any clean up could accidentally remove a lot of sea creatures in addition to trash.

A private company called The Ocean Cleanup [sic] has designed a marine trash clean up idea that has already been implemented in the Netherlands. The Ocean Cleanup is an organization run by Boyan Slat who claims that they can clean up half the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in 10 years. This project uses a V-shaped net that is placed so that ocean currents push the plastic trash into the net for collection. This solution is powered entirely by the ocean currents and its inventors claim that it can reduce the amount of plastic in the ocean by orders of magnitude.

Some people would like to know what they could do to help stop the Great Pacific Garbage Patch from growing. The biggest thing that will help is to reduce plastic consumption. For example, people can use refillable water bottles instead of buying single-use plastic bottles (the kind that is used in “bottle flipping”). When buying things like rice or trail mix, they can buy in bulk and avoid purchasing multiple packaged items. Consumers can also re-use the plastic containers they do purchase. In California they could get a “whale tale” license plate, and the money they spend will go to an ocean conservation foundation. People could also endorse plastic bag bans in their area or state, like the bag ban that California put into action in 2016.

Unless society makes major changes, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch will only continue to grow. Over the next 11 years, it is estimated that we will make as much plastic as we have made in the last 65 years (Earle, 2009). Half of the plastic in the US is used just once and thrown away (Plastic Oceans, 2017). Only 20% of the 39 billion plastic bottles used in the US each year are recycled (Earle, 2009). The Great Pacific Garbage Patch may grow or shrink, it all depends on the choices of everyone who lives on earth. In short, as world famous marine biologist Sylvia Earle and author of The World is Blue has said, “There is no ‘away’ to throw to.”