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Great Pacific Garbage Patch - the real story

by Sailors for the Sea - Ocean Watch Essay on 7 Sep 2013
Microplastics, picked up from the ocean in a bucket - Photo by Maggie Ostdahl .. .
No doubt you have heard of the so-called Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and thought goodness, that’s terrible, someone should clean up that island of trash.

Here is the real story: There is no island of trash (it’s more of a trashy soup), and the solution is to stop our trash – mostly made of plastic – from getting to the middle of the ocean. Solving the problems of marine debris and plastic pollution is a perfect example of the need to think globally and act locally.


What is marine debris, and why does it end up in gyres?

Marine debris, as defined by NOAA, is 'any persistent solid material that is manufactured or processed and directly or indirectly, intentionally or unintentionally, disposed of or abandoned into the marine environment or the Great Lakes.'

There is a growing body of scientific studies about marine debris, its composition, and its direct and indirect impacts to marine wildlife and us. Some things we do know: most marine debris (60-80%) actually comes from land-based sources (e.g. humans), and that the majority of marine debris – again up to 80% in some studies – is some form of plastic.

Plastic can be a very useful material, but by design it is durable, lightweight, convenient – and now everywhere. These are the very characteristics that help blow it or carry it from our human community out to the ocean.

Let’s take as an example the ubiquitous plastic water bottle bought from a convenience store, or by the case (wrapped in more plastic, of course). When you are done with it, you put it in the recycling bin – but what if it the bottle never gets to the recycling plant? It could easily blow or wash into a nearby stream or river instead, especially if it goes into a storm drain (water through storm drains is not treated at wastewater treatment plants, so all trash that goes into them goes into the watershed and ultimately out to the ocean).

Along the way, sun and water may break the plastic bottle into smaller and smaller plastic pieces, but it will not degrade entirely. If this plastic bottle began in California, chances are it – or its plastic bits - are now in the large ocean currents that contribute to the North Pacific gyre.

A gyre is any vortex in air or water, but the word is most commonly used to refer to natural convergence zones of ocean currents that rotate because of the Coriolis Effect. There are gyres in the five major ocean basins - North Atlantic, South Atlantic, Indian, South Pacific and North Pacific. These gyres are not fixed areas; they shift depending on wind, waves, and currents. Scientists are actively studying the gyres, and how they tend to concentrate marine debris.

In the meantime, our trash continues to drift out to the middle of the ocean. Along the way, marine debris entangles or is eaten by fish, turtles, seabirds, whales, and so on. Plastic particles floating in the ocean can also be small platforms to transport environmental pollutants and invasive species throughout the sea.

And now, the solution:

The good news is that there are many individuals and groups around the world raising awareness and encouraging all of us to help slow and stop our tide of trash before it becomes marine debris. Plastic pollution and marine debris have been topics of a number of TED talks, and ‘trending topics’ in social media.

Local, state and national governments are crafting laws and policies to address marine debris. People and communities are changing trash habits, as we all begin to understand that there is no 'away' in our throwaway culture.

The case study of the San Francisco Bay Area:
What are some specific things going on in the Bay Area as I write this essay?

For one, there are year-round beach and shoreline clean-ups organized by Sea Scavenger Conservancy, Surfrider, Save the Bay, Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, Aquarium of the Bay, The Marine Mammal Center, and many others.

All of these groups and more also participate in Ocean Conservancy’s International Coastal Clean-up via California Coastal Clean-up Day. Coastal clean-up day is every year on the third Saturday in September – the 2013 Clean-up is around the corner on September 21!

Beyond coastal clean-ups, San Francisco and many surrounding cities and counties are changing our attitude and habits around trash and working towards Zero Waste. Aquarium of the Bay since 2005 has been part of the San Francisco Green Business program, which includes commitments to generate less waste in our daily operations. In fact, as of 2009 in San Francisco, residents and businesses MUST recycle and compost; it’s the law.

While European countries lead the way in reducing single-use plastic bag waste, in 2007 San Francisco was the first city in the United States to ban single-use plastic checkout bags at certain stores.

This bag ordinance was expanded in 2012; it has also been used as a model for cities. San Francisco has also banned the use of polystyrene food containers by all food vendors and restaurants.

Zero Waste rules and behaviours extend to all events taking place in the city, too. A great example is the 34th America’s Cup and their implementation of Clean Regattas Best Practices along with the America’s Cup Healthy Ocean Project, whose many partners have removed over 170 tons of trash and counting from the San Francisco Bay shoreline, keeping it from becoming marine debris.

Take Action:

You CAN make a difference. Follow these steps to create a positive future for the ocean:

1. Pledge to help reduce marine debris and encourage others to do the same. There are a number of good campaigns to clean up the ocean - google them in your area, sign one, or sign them all. If there are none in your area, start one!

2. Follow through: reduce your plastic and trash habit with reusable grocery bags, reusable containers and straws and buying products with less packaging.

3. Join a clean-up near you on any local 'Clean-up Day' in your area

4. Learn more and spread the word. There are some great resources online, which include, referring to the San Francisco area: Plastic Debris in the California Marine Ecosystem, San Francisco Zero Waste, and NOAA's Marine Debris Program.

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