The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is located halfway between Hawaii and California. It covers an estimated surface area of 1.6 million square kilometres, an area twice the size of Texas or three times the size of France(1). A total of 1.8 trillion plastic pieces were estimated to be floating in the patch – a plastic count that is equivalent to 250 pieces of debris for every human in the world.
I am a second-grade teacher, and believe it is especially important to educate children about these topics when they are young. To do so, I wrote a children’s book called Protector of the Ocean to inspire children to make a difference in our world. It is out on Amazon next month and the story shares important messages about friendship, protecting the environment, helping others, and empowering children to follow their dreams and make a positive impact.
A common misconception is that The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a floating island of trash. However, it is actually much more dangerous. This toxic vortex is more like a smog of microplastic particles, billions of them, over a wide area. Within this soup are larger pieces of trash like shoes, plastic bags, plastic bottles, plastic netting, etc.
Once these plastics enter the spinning gyre, they are unlikely to leave the current until they degrade into smaller microplastics under the effects of the sun, waves, and marine life(2). 80% of these plastics come from land, and the other 20% come from boats. It is estimated that 1.15 to 2.41 tons of plastic are entering the ocean each year from rivers(3). As more and more plastics are used and discarded into the environment, microplastic concentration in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch will only continue to increase(4).
Because there is such a large accumulation of plastic debris taking over our oceans and our land, many animals get stuck in it or mistake the plastic for food. Seals and other marine mammals can get entangled in abandoned plastic fishing nets, which are being discarded largely due to illegal fishing and inclement weather. In addition, sea turtles often mistake plastic bags for jellyfish, their favourite food. Albatrosses mistake tiny plastic resin pellets for fish eggs and feed them to chicks, which die of starvation or ruptured organs(5).
Because plastic is designed to defeat natural decay, it never truly decomposes. Plastic breaks apart into tiny microplastics, which can’t always be seen by the naked eye. Although they are small, they are extremely dangerous.
Microplastics are everywhere from the deepest trenches in the ocean to the highest mountains on Earth. A recent study of microplastics in the deep sea found plastic particles in every single filter feeder that was studied(6). It would be naïve of us to think that none of the chemicals from our constant plastic use enters our bodies.
Arizona State University scientists developed and tested a new method to identify dozens of plastics in human tissue that could eventually be used to collect global data on microplastic pollution and its impact on people. The researchers found bisphenol A (BPA) in all samples and were also able to detect the chemical used in plastic drink bottles and shopping bags. They also found and analysed polycarbonate (PC) and polyethylene (PE). These particles can end up in human bodies through the air or by consuming wildlife like seafood that has eaten plastic; or by consuming other foods with trace amounts of plastic from packaging(7).
According to Environmental Health News, eight out of every ten babies, and nearly all adults, have measurable levels of phthalates, a chemical in many plastic products, in their bodies(8).
Plastic not only has an impact on humans and wildlife, but on the environment as a whole. Plastic can choke the ocean’s ability to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, exacerbating climate change. Only 10% of the habitat is on land. The ocean makes up 90% of the habitats on Earth. By 2050, scientists believe that the ocean will have as much plastic in it as fish, by weight.
The ocean, and the world itself, is in peril right now. If we don’t start to change the way we package items, entire species can go extinct. Our planet relies on the biodiversity of its species. Biodiversity provides functioning ecosystems that supply clean air and water, pollination of plants, and the fundamental health of all living things on Earth. Without biodiversity, the whole web of life, including humans, will collapse.
Scientists and explorers agree that limiting or eliminating our use of disposable plastics and increasing our use of biodegradable resources will be the best way to clean up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. This can be as simple as reducing your plastic waste in your daily life. You can do things like bring a reusable bag to the store, avoid single-use plastics such as straws, put your recycling in the correct containers, wear natural fabrics, and more.
One of the best ways to help is to spread awareness and educate others. You can educate family, friends, and co-workers to reduce their consumption of plastic by setting a good example. When you do this, the impact of your actions for the good of the planet will increase exponentially. It is important to use your voice, no matter how big or small, to inform others on the climate crisis and what they can do to help.
You can find more information about my book, Protector of the Ocean on my website or on my Instagram page. Together, I believe that we can make a difference in our world.
1. Laurent C. M. Lebreton, et al., “Evidence that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is rapidly accumulating plastic,” Scientific Reports 8, no. 4666 (March 2018), https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-018-22939-w 2.Qiqing Chen, et al., “Pollutants in Plastics within the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre,” Environmental Science and Technology 52, no. 2 (November 2017): 446-456, http://doi.org/10.1021/acs.est.7b04682 3.Laurent C. M. Lebreton, et al., “River plastic emissions to the world’s oceans,” Nature Communications 8, no. 15611 (June 2017), http://doi.org/10.1038/ncomms15611 4. “The Great Pacific Garbage Patch.” The Ocean Cleanup, 11 Feb. 2020, theoceancleanup.com/great-pacific-garbage-patch/. 5. National Geographic Society, Caryl-Sue. “Great Pacific Garbage Patch.” National Geographic Society, Caryl-Sue, 9 Oct. 2012, www.nationalgeographic.org/encyclopedia/great-pacific-garbage-patch/. 6.Choy, C.A., Robison, B.H., Gagne, T.O. et al. The vertical distribution and biological transport of marine microplastics across the epipelagic and mesopelagic water column. Sci Rep 9, 7843 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-019-44117-2 7. Dreams, Common. “Microplastics Found in Human Organs for First Time.” EcoWatch, EcoWatch, 18 Aug. 2020, www.ecowatch.com/microplastics-found-human-organs-2647014349.html. 8. Knoblauch, Jessica A. “Plastic Environmental Impact.” EHN, EHN, 8 Mar. 2021, www.ehn.org/plastic-environmental-impact-2501923191/plastic-manufactured-in-the-first-10-years-of-this-century-eclipses-the-total-produced-in-the-entire-last-century.