Debris in the Pacific poses a threat to marine life


The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is not actually a floating pile of garbage as it is often portrayed in the news. In fact, it is drastically worse.

The patch is a mix of plastic and fishing debris located in the center of the North Pacific Gyre between California and Hawaii. Scientists estimate the patch spans 618,000 square miles, almost the size of Alaska or France (an advocacy group recently declared the patch a state). Scientists also estimate that it weighs more than 79 metric tons.

But it is not just a patch of garbage that can be easily swooped up and dumped into a landfill. It’s primarily made up of microplastics, tiny pieces of plastics, less than five millimeters, that have broken off from, say, a water bottle or a Barbie doll. About 94 percent of the patch is microplastics, the other 6 percent being fishing lines or nets.

Most bodies of water contain their own garbage patches. Garbage and fishing debris in the Mediterranean Sea, for example, collects in patchy locations throughout the basin, especially since the basin is a trade highway.

The fishing nets are incredibly dangerous, because, when abandoned, they aimlessly roam the oceans, catching any unlucky organisms that wander into its path. These nets are often called “ghost nets,” and can reach upwards of 400 kilograms in weight.

Philosophy professor David O’Hara said coast guard officials and advocacy groups around the world are finding whales caught in these nets.

“There’s not exactly a lot that people can do when they find these whales,” O’Hara said.

There are specially made knives that officials use to cut away the nets, O’Hara said, but they require people to actually boat out and find the whales.

But microplastics pose a greater risk to the oceans because they can not easily be cleaned as ghost nets. Microplastics, looking delicious to a fish or a bird, are able to work their way up the food chain. That means, of course, we may be eating microscopic bits of plastic without knowing it.

These little bits of plastic, unless cleaned up, will hang around in the oceans for potentially hundreds of years because plastic is such an indestructible material. When they eventually do deteriorate, we do not know what they will break down into, O’Hara said.

“They could turn back into oil or perhaps something far worse,” O’Hara said.

But microbeads don’t just threaten oceans. All waterways are at risk of microplastic pollution, especially waterways next to major cities.

The scariest thing about microplastics is they sink to the bottoms of waterways, meaning we will never know where they end up. They could be on beaches, the bottom of the ocean or  the stomachs of marine animals. Regardless, these bits of plastic will be on Earth for ages.

“I worked in Belize and everyday people who worked on the reef had to go out and clean up plastic that washed up on the shore, and they could not keep up with it all,” O’Hara said. “Plastic bottles, flip flops, plastic bags, you name it, they were all there, from all around the world.” 

But there is a bit of hope. Boyan Slat, with his company The Ocean Cleanup, has devised ways to clean ocean plastic using U-shaped barriers. The company then takes the collected plastics and attempts to recycle them.

However, O’Hara said the barrier systems only work to an extent because you’re bound to accidentally catch organisms.

Jacob Knutson is a junior journalism, English, and political science major from Rapid City, S.D.

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