Image from Wikimedia Commons
In the present day, plastic has become a crutch humans unknowingly rely on, with our lives revolving around the product. As the world continually depends on plastic for everyday life, it’s easy to not think of where these products end up when their usability expires, or their effects on the Earth itself. Unknown to many, much of discarded plastic makes its way into the ocean, which is home to five large scale offshore plastic accumulation sites, The Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP) being the greatest of the five. Located between the coast of California and Hawaii, the patch is made of entirely of accumulated plastic debris, and is estimated to be 1.6 million square kilometers in size, covering an area twice the size of the state of Texas. In order to create this extreme size, its estimated that 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic make up the GPGP, creating a mass of around 80,000 tons. To put in perspective, the weight of the accumulation of plastic is equal to that of 500 Jumbo Jets.
It’s important to note that plastic will never fully decompose, as most plastics are not biodegradable. Rather, plastic breaks down either through constant friction or through a process known as photodegradation, in which UV rays from the sun slowly break the bonds in the product, breaking it down into smaller pieces of plastic. However, this process can take an immense amount of time, from plastic bags taking up to 100 years to break down, to plastic bottles, which can take up to 1000 years to break down. Therefore, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is not a problem that is going away any time soon, especially at the current rate of plastic production.
The accumulation of the plastic in the GPGP has disastrous effects on the marine life in the ocean. Plastic products are often eaten by marine animals, as it is easily confused as food, causing not only malnutrition for the animals, but also unseen effects. When the plastic is consumed by marine life, the chemicals within the product are ingested along with it, which could prove toxic to the animal. Said chemicals could be present in humans also. Once these chemicals enter the food chain, they are passed along from each prey to each predator, eventually making their way across the food web, which includes us. In addition, the GPGP poses the threat of entanglement for marine life, as 46% of its mass is made up of discarded fishing nets, also known as ghost nets. Marine life who swim into these nets can easily become entangled, and the weight of the nets restrict their movements, leaving them unable to hunt and/or come up for air; ghost nets often lead to the death of the animals trapped within them.
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch poses a looming threat to not only marine ecosystems, but also to humans as well. Although the largest of its kind, the GPGP is only one of five large scale plastic accumulation sites across the oceans, each of which brings a new threat to the life living around it, and each grows in size every day. As the world continues forward, we must consider the drastic effect this issue is having the Earth. There is no one solution to the plastic problem, but it is clear that we cannot continue much longer without a change to our lifestyle. We only have one planet we can call home, and if we continue to mistreat her, the consequences may grow to be irreversible.