The Great Pacific Garbage Patch Is Growing
And it was already enormous
27 March, 2018
What’s 1.6 million square kilometers, weighs 80,000 metric tons, and is three times the size of continental France?
That would be the Great Pacific Garbage Patch—the enormous collection of detritus that floats in the Pacific Ocean, halfway between Hawaii and California. Also known as the “GPGP,” the patch’s sprawl has made it notoriously difficult to measure. But a new study published last Thursday in the journal Scientific Reports has gathered the most comprehensive measurement yet. After three years of data collection, researchers from the Ocean Cleanup—a Dutch nonprofit that works on developing technologies to scrub the oceans—have calculated that the patch is four to sixteen times larger than ever before determined—and it’s growing.
“This plastic accumulation rate inside the GPGP, which was greater than in the surrounding waters, indicates that the inflow of plastic into the patch continues to exceed the outflow,” Laurent Lebreton, the lead author of the study, told Science Daily.
Since scientists started measuring the patch in the 1970s, they have typically used fine-meshed nets to trawl the accumulation zone. But these nets are not large enough to capture clusters of bigger garbage. To overcome this problem, the researchers outfitted a C-130 Hercules aircraft with LiDAR sensors—the same kind used by self-driving cars—to take 3D scans of the garbage, allowing them to capture images of both floating and submerged trash, as well as very large pieces of plastic, such as meters-wide fishing nets. Using this method, the researchers counted 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic floating in the accumulation zone, and collected 1.2 million plastic samples that they brought back to the lab to study, one by one.
When they did, they learned something new about the makeup of the patch. The GPGP it is neither a giant floating island of garbage—as was widely believed back in the 90s—nor a massive swirl of confetti-sized pieces of plastic, as has been widely reported since. Instead, it’s what Mother Nature Network’s Russell McLendon has called a “galaxy of garbage,” composed of a network of plastic, large and small. A full 92 percent of the mass is comprised of larger objects, while only 8 percent is made up of “microplastics”—fragments smaller than 5 millimeters.
“We were surprised by the amount of large plastic objects we encountered,” Julia Reisser, chief scientist of the expeditions, told Science Daily. “We used to think most of the debris consists of small fragments, but this new analysis shines a new light on the scope of the debris.”
But how did the patch get here in the first place, and why is it getting bigger? In short: human thoughtlessness and fluid mechanics. Over the years, five large mega-gyres—that is, great whirlpools where currents collide—in the North and South Atlantic, the North and South Pacific, and the Indian Ocean have become filled with garbage. A plastic cup tossed on a San Francisco street will wend its way to the sea via storm drain, and then journey to the nearest gyre, where it will join trillions of other artifacts of human civilization.
This plastic pollution isn’t just unsightly: It poses threats to marine life and it has health and economic implications for humans as well. According to the Ocean Cleanup, oceanic plastics enter the human food chain through a process called bioaccumulation, in which the chemicals in plastic can enter the bodies of sea life like fish and then later, the bodies of the predators who consume those fish. There’s a significant economic impact, too: The UN has reported that ocean plastic pollution costs $13 billion every year through the likes of beach cleanups and financial loss incurred by fisheries.
Dead whale found in Thailand with 17 pounds of plastic in its stomach
Volunteers and marine veterinarians from Department of Marine and Coastal Resources attempted to rescue a sick male pilot whale in the coastal area of southern Thailand near the Malaysian border, 28 May 2018. Photo: ThaiWhales / AFP / Getty Images
3 June, 2018
BANGKOK, 3 June 2018 (Reuters) – Some 80 pieces of plastic rubbish weighing 17 pounds were found in the stomach of a whale that died in Thailand after a five-day effort to save it, a marine official said on Sunday.
The pilot whale was discovered on Monday in a canal in the southern province of Songkhla and received treatment from a team of veterinarians.
The whale spit out five plastic bags on Friday and later died, the Marine and Coastal Resources Department said on its website.
An autopsy found another 80 bags and other plastic items weighing more than 17 pounds (8 kg) in the whale’s stomach.
“This plastic rubbish made the whale sick and unable to hunt for food,” the department said.
Jatuporn Buruspat, head of the department, said the whale probably thought the floating plastic bags were food. […]
A government marine veterinarian is being helped by volunteers to remove plastics from the stomach of dead male pilot whale at the Marine and Coastal Resource Research and Development Center in Songkla province, Thailand, 1 June 2018. Photo: ThaiWhales / AFP / Getty Images
Globally, eight million tons of plastic — bottles, packaging and other waste — are dumped into the ocean every year, killing marine life and entering the human food chain, the United Nations Environment Programme said in December. [more]