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Climate | Plastic Patch

Pacific garbage patch now TWICE the size of Texas

Dr. Mario Picazo
Meteorologist, PhD

Tuesday, March 27, 2018, 13:27 - If you travel from California to Hawaii across the Pacific, you are likely to encounter a large patch of garbage floating on the water. To be precise, this huge floating island weighs close to 80,000 tons, and the future isn't looking to promising. Experts say the patch just keeps growing and is now estimated to be close to 620,000 square miles, about twice the size of the state of Texas.

On average, close to 1.8 million tons of plastic enter the ocean each year from rivers around the world. More than half of this amount of plastic is less dense than the water it encounters, meaning it will not sink once in oceans and seas.

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Illustration from The Ocean Cleanup Foundation shows the size of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch adrift between California and Hawaii.

This massive vortex of garbage is much larger than originally thought. Researchers from the Ocean Cleanup group led by Laurent Lebreton have recently published a detailed study in Nature's Scientific Reports showing that the patch is 16 times larger than previous estimates. The measurements conducted to obtain a more precise figure of the real dimension of this environmental catastrophe were obtained using a fleet of 30 boats, 652 surface nets and two flights over the patch to gather aerial imagery of the debris.

Plastic concentrations

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP), as it is referred to, is a big pie of plastic, chemical sludge and other sorts of debris. All this material swirls around the east-central north Pacific pushed by massive ocean currents that make-up the Northern Pacific Gyre, which results from earth's rotation. Due to seasonal and interannual variabilities of winds and currents, the location of the GPGP changes location and shape.

Click play to watch below: 5 countries dump more plastic into the oceans than the rest of the world combined

Lebreton's data collected from six expeditions between 2013 and 2015 reveals that the buoyant plastic mass is distributed within the top few meters of the ocean. They also found that over three-quarters of the GPGP mass was carried by debris larger than 5 cm [about 2 inches] and at least 46% was comprised of fishing nets. Micro plastics accounted for 8% of the total mass but 94% of the estimated 1.8 trillion pieces floating in the area.

Since plastics persist in this vast ocean region, over time they are likely to break down into smaller pieces as a result of exposure to sun, waves, temperatures changes and marine life. These smaller pieces of plastic, referred to as microplastics, can float within water surface layers, but also in the water column and on occasions sink as deep as the ocean floor. Once reduced to small sizes, it's almost impossible to remove them from the water, so marine animals commonly ingest them thinking it is food.

Click play to watch below: Manta ray swims through plastic in search for food

To make matters worse, once the small fish eat the microplastics, they sometimes end up making their way up the food chain. The bigger fish will eat the small fish and eventually humans will consume either. 

The sheer volume of plastics around earth's oceans can be partially stopped by changing plastic usage habits. Stepping away from single use plastics is a good start together with reusing and recycling them.

Click play to watch below: 5 ways you could reduce the plastic in your life (and help the planet, too!)

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