What about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch?

By Aditya Srivastava

It’s huge, perhaps the size of a country or even bigger. It’s trash, made up of all the detritus humans discard without a second thought. And finally, it’s a myth.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is not, as famously portrayed, a thick solid mass of floating waste/garbage somewhere in the middle of the great Pacific Ocean. If it were, real estate developers might as well be selling beachfront villas, promoting it as an exciting opportunity to live on a brand-new, man-made island. Rather, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is more like a swirling muddle of garbage, some of it floating and some of it submerged (fully or partially), that may be thick enough to create dead zones or thin enough to be little more than a joke. After all, people have dumped more garbage in oceans than in landfills, and it all has to go somewhere on this earth. While the Great Pacific Garbage Patch might not be the next new continent, that popular image has been used to create interventions that have brought about some real change. Some much-needed changes.

The story of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch came to light when Charles Moore was sailing across the Pacific Ocean and encountered strange objects bobbling in the water. After his initial encounter in 1997, he started investigating trash in the oceans further, particularly garbage that gets caught up in gyres, or rotating whirlpools of ocean currents created by wind and the Coriolis effect. When Moore made his findings public, the media dubbed the garbage caught up in the gyre in the Eastern Pacific the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” and the idea caught on a life of its own. A Russian source went on to call it “trash island”. Like pollution in general, everyone began using the term, although the reality is a lot more venomous and has a much greater potential to harmfully affect everyone than we like to concede.

As fantastical as an island of garbage might seem, the reality is even more disturbing and appalling. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is made mostly of tiny bits of trash, too small to capture from a satellite or even notice while sailing through it, although there are the odd large items like a truck tire or even a volleyball to serve as a more intact reminder of human activities. These pieces of garbage are normally so small because objects caught in a gyre get continuously churned up along with the ocean’s currents, breaking them down into a sort of fine garbage slurry that marine creatures like shrimp and fish often confuse for food. “Plastic comes in every size-class and mimics the food for every single trophic level,” Moore explained by talking to Earth Island Journal in a 2009 interview. “From the tiniest zooplankton all the way to the largest cetaceans, there is a plastic morsel that looks and acts just like their natural food.” Beyond the adverse effects on fish, and on every creature higher on the food chain that might eat the said fish, marine pollution is moved around the globe via the ocean’s currents. Just like the trash came into the gyre from somewhere, it may leave the gyre to somewhere else, but all on this Earth of course. One of the results- beaches across the North Pacific now have plastic sand deposited on their shores from the sea slurry. While the idea of a confetti-colored beach might seem appealing and magical (imagine the beautiful sandcastles) –it hides a far uglier truth: We are irreparably destroying the environment, and the remnants of our refuse will remain far longer than we will.

Source: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 2012

Whether inspired by the media-mongered myth or the alarming facts, the idea of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch has provoked people to take action. It has been revealed that almost every ocean and major body of water has a garbage patch of its own. We need a global solution to such a global problem. United Nations has taken many initiatives already- passed resolutions to study, address, and reduce marine litter, as well as sponsored regional cleanup efforts to stop pollution at the very source and clean up beaches. On periodic basis, United Nations also publishes a comparative contribution of countries to cleanup efforts, and it is also trying to source trash sampled from the oceans back to its origin and share that information as well.

Some experts question and even claim that the patch can never be cleaned and most we can do is prevent it from growing further. Much like it took a world of people to produce the garbage in that patch, it might, or rather will, take a world of people to eliminate it as well. More than this, the oceans and the trash debris found in them have, in a peculiar sense, united humanity. Our trash can affect others halfway around the world, an accidental relic of culture and proof for the interconnectedness of life on Earth. It is quite noteworthy that one such creature has extracted the remains of giant lizards, remains that had been compressed for millions of years, and formed them into bottles, bags, and even toys sculpted after those same giant lizards and sent them to be played with and used by others around the world. Is it any more remarkable to ponder that these same creatures might find a way to eliminate that plastic from the oceans or prevent it from getting there in the first place?

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