Sunday, May 11, 2014

Ocean Life Threatened by Giant Garbage Patches

By Michael Seyler

Planet Earth has had a sever increase in pollution in the past fifty years. Many people don’t even know how polluted the earth really is because it is mainly kept out of the news. The ocean covers around 70% of the earth. Since the ocean is such a large portion of the planet, it has become more and more polluted over the years. Trash and chemicals are constantly dumped into the sea, which eventually created large garbage patches floating around the ocean.

graphic courtesy of Wikipedia
There is several garbage patches located all over the globe, but the largest ones are the Indian Ocean patch, the North Atlantic patch and the Great Pacific patch. The reason the trash has built up in certain locations is because of the long rotating ocean currents called gyres. There are five major gyres located all over the ocean and three out of the five of them are filled with waste. Small amounts of waste have been found in the remaining two gyres and marine biologists predict that they will most likely get polluted with trash within the next thirty years.

Patches of Plastics, Chemical Sludge Float in Oceans

According to, the Indian Ocean Garbage Patch was discovered in 2010. Scientists examined the Indian Ocean Gyre and found it contained elevated levels of plastics, chemical sludge, and other debris. Scientists explained that many of the toxic particles in the zone are not visible to the human eye; they can only be seen using certain equipment. The patch was found by a prediction that was made because of the amount of garbage that washed up on the beaches in and around the Indian Ocean. After researchers measured the amount of trash that was washing up they came to the conclusion that there must be a tremendous amount of waste in the water column.

The North Atlantic Garbage Patch was documented in 1976. This patch is estimated to be over one hundred kilometers in size. This location is part of the North Atlantic Gyre. According to, the potential cleanup is hopeless because the process of removing the waste out of the water column could harm the ocean wildlife in the area. Despite the size of the patch you still can’t see it from a satellite.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch was discovered in 1997 by Charles J. Moore. After Moore completed a sailing race in the Pacific Gyre he came across a large patch of floating debris. Moore then alerted his friend who is an oceanographer and research on the patch began from there. The patch was also part of a prediction that was made based of the amount of garbage washing up on beaches in the Pacific. No one has found the exact size of the patch, but there have been many estimates made.

According to, most of the plastic particles are submerged just below the surface of the water, making them invisible by aircraft or satellite. Some scientists believe that the patch could be over 15,000,000 square kilometers, making it the largest of the main garbage patches. Another interesting thing about this patch is that it is so far away from any country’s coastline that no one will take responsibility for it. Some international organizations are helping prevent the patch from growing.

The garbage in these gyres is doing a lot of harm to the wildlife of the ocean. Many animals eat it and then are unable to swallow or digest it and they die shortly after. Sea turtles and birds are mainly victims of this. Some fish end up getting caught in the trash and are unable to escape. The trash also prevents the wildlife from getting to their food’s location, so eating waste becomes the only option for them. Another problem comes from when the plastic deteriorates in the water. The plastic particles that come from the trash are also toxic to the ocean life as well. These toxins spread around the food chain of the ocean.

Health Impact on People Eating Plastic-Tainted Fish

Many people don’t realize that the damage to the ocean could affect them as well. Since there are fish that are caught out in the gyres, there have been cases of people getting sick from eating fish with plastic toxins in them. Research has shown that animals consuming these toxic substances is becoming a problem all around the globe. What makes this situation worse is that there is barely anything being done to clean up any of these gyres.

The Great North Pacific Gyre is the only one anyone has attempted to clean up. In 2008 Richard Owen, a contract builder and scuba instructor, formed an environmental cleanup organization. The purpose of it was to address the problem in the North Pacific Gyre and figure out how to remove to waste without harming the wildlife. In 2012 Dutch Aerospace engineering student Boyan Slat unveiled his concept of cleaning all of the gyres. He wanted to use devices that would shift the currents, breaking the patches into sections and then the trash could be cleaned up easier. Slat explained that all of the trash could be cleaned up with in five years if this was done. However, nothing has been done yet because Slat believes he needs to be paired with a plastic prevention organization that would help with the process.

I believe these gyres will be cleaned up sometime in the future. The problem is that if too much time passes, a lot of ocean wildlife will start to become extinct and the trash will fill the remaining two gyres. The best solution to this process is to clean up the garbage patches as soon as possible; however; pollution is never the top priority for most of the planet.  Considering the ocean is such a large portion of our planet, it should be one of our society’s main priorities.

Great Pacific Garbage Patch, National Geographic Education
New garbage patch discovered in Indian Ocean --,
North Atlantic Garbage Patch, Atlas Obscura   

Michael Seyler is a journalism student at Ramapo College of New Jersey

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