The so-called ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch’ refers to a floating collection of rubbish in the Pacific ocean. The garbage patch lies between Hawaii and California and although it doesn’t include even a centimetre of dry land, is now believed to span 1.6m sq km, making it more than twice as big as France, and is calculated to contain at least 79,000 tons of plastic, according to new research published in Nature. The mass of waste is as much as 16 times larger than previously believed.
Scientists calculated the revised mass by assessing aerial images and data gathered from ships dragging nets through the region. The research was conducted by scientists at the Ocean Cleanup Foundation, who are attempting to understand the true extent of plastic pollution in the world’s oceans.
It’s not a surprise that the level of plastic waste in our oceans is growing, according to Dr Laurent Lebreton, an oceanographer with the Ocean Cleanup and the study’s lead author. “Overall you would expect plastic pollution is getting worse in the oceans because we are producing and using more plastics, globally and annually,” he said. “We found that there’s about 80,000 tonnes of plastic floating in an area of 1.6 million square kilometres. That corresponds to about 1.8 trillion particles of all sizes.”
Of the plastic waste they collected, nearly half of the mass consisted of fishing nets and although microplastics are a massive problem, more than 75% of the plastic debris observed was larger than five centimetres. An added problem is that over time, these larger pieces gradually break down into ever-smaller pieces, forming the “plastic soup” that makes up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and other accumulation zones.
“I’ve been doing this research for a while, but it was depressing to see,” said Dr Lebreton “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.”
Once a ‘miracle’ product, durable and versatile, plastic is now recognised as an environmental hazard, polluting seas, rivers, lakes and drinking water. Around 8 million tons of plastic ends up in the oceans every year, where it is left to wash up on beaches or drifts out to sea where it will slowly break down into tiny pieces over hundreds of years.
Larger pieces of plastic can trap kill marine creatures, while tiny fragments are eaten by small fish and find their way up the food chain. It’s estimated there will be more waste plastic in the sea than fish by the year 2050.
The Ocean Cleanup has pledged a “moonshot” effort to clean up half of the Great Pacific garbage patch within five years and mop up the other accumulations by 2040. The organization has been developing a system of floating barriers with underwater screens to trap and concentrate plastics in a small area, ready to be fished out of the water more easily. A prototype version is expected to be tested this summer. However, the system will not be capable of trapping microplastics, pieces measuring less than 10mm, and the operation will require significant funding for it to stand any chance of being truly effective.