Garbage patch

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Garbage patches are a type of a gyre of marine debris particles caused by the effects of ocean currents and increasing plastic pollution by human populations. These human-caused collections of plastic and other debris, cause ecosystem and environmental problems that effect marine life, contaminate oceans with toxic chemicals, and contribute to greenhouse gas emissions.

The best known of these is the Great Pacific garbage patch which has the highest density of marine debris and plastic, visible from space in certain weather conditions.[1] Other identified patches include the North Atlantic garbage patch between the North America and Africa, the South Atlantic garbage patch located between eastern South America and the tip of Africa, the South Pacific garbage patch located west of South America, and the Indian Ocean garbage patch found east of south Africa listed in order of decreasing size.[2]

Garbage patches are rapidly growing because of widespread loss of plastic from human trash collection systems. It is estimated that approximately "100 million tons of plastic are generated [globally] each year", and about 10% of that plastic ends up in the oceans. The United Nations Environmental Program recently estimated that "for every square mile of ocean" there are about "46,000 pieces of plastic."[3]

Environmental issues[edit]

Photodegradation of plastics[edit]

Washed-up plastic waste on a beach in Singapore

The patch is one of several oceanic regions where researchers have studied the effects and impact of plastic photodegradation in the neustonic layer of water.[4] Unlike organic debris, which biodegrades, plastic disintegrates into ever smaller pieces while remaining a polymer (without changing chemically). This process continues down to the molecular level.[5] Some plastics decompose within a year of entering the water, releasing potentially toxic chemicals such as bisphenol A, PCBs and derivatives of polystyrene.[6]

As the plastic flotsam photodegrades into smaller and smaller pieces, it concentrates in the upper water column. As it disintegrates, the pieces become small enough to be ingested by aquatic organisms that reside near the ocean's surface. Plastic may become concentrated in neuston, thereby entering the food chain. Disintegration means that much of the plastic is too small to be seen. Moreover, plastic exposed to sunlight and in watering environments produce greenhouse gases, leading to further environmental impact.[7]

Effects on marine life[edit]

The United Nations Ocean Conference estimated that the oceans might contain more weight in plastics than fish by the year 2050.[8] Some long-lasting plastics end up in the stomachs of marine animals.[9][10][11] Plastic attracts seabirds and fish. When marine life consumes plastic allowing it to enter the food chain, this can lead to greater problems when species that have consumed plastic are then eaten by other predators.

Animals can also become trapped in plastic nets and rings, which can cause death. Plastic pollution affects at least 700 marine species, including sea turtles, seals and sea lions, seabirds, fish, and whales and dolphins.[12] Cetaceans have been sighted within the patch, which poses entanglement and ingestion risks to animals using the Great Pacific garbage patch as a migration corridor or core habitat.[13]

Plastic consumption[edit]

With the increased amount of plastic in the ocean, living organisms are now at a greater risk of harm from plastic consumption and entanglement. Approximately 23% of aquatic mammals, and 36% of seabirds have experienced the detriments of plastic presence in the ocean.[14] Since as much as 70% of the trash is estimated to be on the ocean floor, and microplastics are only millimeters wide, sealife at nearly every level of the food chain is affected.[15][16][17] Animals who feed off of the bottom of the ocean risk sweeping microplastics into their systems while gathering food.[18] Smaller marine life such as mussels and worms sometimes mistake plastic for their prey.[14][19]

Larger animals are also affected by plastic consumption because they feed on fish, and are indirectly consuming microplastics already trapped inside their prey.[18] Likewise, humans are also susceptible to microplastic consumption. People who eat seafood also eat some of the microplastics that were ingested by marine life. Oysters and clams are popular vehicles for human microplastic consumption.[18] Animals who are within the general vicinity of the water are also affected by the plastic in the ocean. Studies have shown 36% species of seabirds are consuming plastic because they mistake larger pieces of plastic for food.[14] Plastic can cause blockage of intestines as well as tearing of interior stomach and intestinal lining of marine life, ultimately leading to starvation and death.[14]


Not all marine life is affected by the consumption of plastic. Some instead find themselves tangled in larger pieces of garbage that cause just as much harm as the barely visible microplastics.[14] Trash that has the possibility of wrapping itself around a living organism may cause strangulation or drowning.[14] If the trash gets stuck around a ligament that is not vital for airflow, the ligament may grow with a malformation.[14] Plastic’s existence in the ocean becomes cyclical because marine life that is killed by it ultimately decompose in the ocean, re-releasing the plastics into the ecosystem.[20][21]

Identified patches[edit]

Of the five gyres on this map, all have significant garbage patches.

Great Pacific[edit]

The Great Pacific garbage patch, also described as the Pacific trash vortex is a garbage patch, a gyre of marine debris particles, in the central North Pacific Ocean cause. It is located roughly from 135°W to 155°W and 35°N to 42°N.[22] The collection of plastic and floating trash originates from the Pacific Rim, including countries in Asia, North America, and South America.[23] The gyre is divided into two areas, the "Eastern Garbage Patch" between Hawaii and California, and the "Western Garbage Patch" extending eastward from Japan to the Hawaiian Islands.

Despite the common public perception of the patch existing as giant islands of floating garbage, its low density (4 particles per cubic meter) prevents detection by satellite imagery, or even by casual boaters or divers in the area. This is because the patch is a widely dispersed area consisting primarily of suspended "fingernail-sized or smaller bits of plastic", often microscopic, particles in the upper water column known as microplastics.[24] Researchers from The Ocean Cleanup project claimed that the patch covers 1.6 million square kilometers.[25] Some of the plastic in the patch is over 50 years old, and includes items (and fragments of items) such as "plastic lighters, toothbrushes, water bottles, pens, baby bottles, cell phones, plastic bags, and nurdles." The small fibers of wood pulp found throughout the patch are "believed to originate from the thousands of tons of toilet paper flushed into the oceans daily."[24]

Research indicates that the patch is rapidly accumulating.[26] The patch is believed to have increased "10-fold each decade" since 1945.[27] A similar patch of floating plastic debris is found in the Atlantic Ocean, called the North Atlantic garbage patch.[28][29] This growing patch contributes to other environment damage to marine ecosystems and species.

South Pacific[edit]

The South Pacific garbage patch is an area of ocean with increased levels of marine debris and plastic particle pollution, within the ocean's pelagic zone. This area is in the South Pacific Gyre, which itself spans from waters east of Australia to the South American continent, as far north as the Equator, and south until reaching the Antarctic Circumpolar Current.[30] The degradation of plastics in the ocean also leads to a rise in the level of toxics in the area.[31] The garbage patch was confirmed in mid-2017, and has been compared to the Great Pacific garbage patch's state in 2007, making the former ten years younger. The South Pacific garbage patch is[when?] impossible to detect using satellites, or other visual means as most particles are smaller than a grain of rice.[citation needed]

Indian Ocean[edit]

The Indian Ocean garbage patch, discovered in 2010, is marine garbage patch, a gyre of marine litter, suspended in the upper water column of the central Indian Ocean, specifically the Indian Ocean Gyre, one of the five major oceanic gyres.[32][33][34][35][36] The patch does not appear as a continuous debris field. As with other patches in each of the five oceanic gyres, the plastics in it break down to ever smaller particles, and to constituent polymers.[37] As with the other patches, the field constitutes an elevated level of pelagic plastics, chemical sludge, and other debris; primarily particles that are invisible to the naked eye. The concentration of particle debris has been estimated to be approximately 10,000 particles per square kilometer.[38][39][40][41]

North Atlantic[edit]

The North Atlantic garbage patch is garbage patch of man-made marine debris found floating within the North Atlantic Gyre, originally documented in 1972.[42] Based on a 22-year research study conducted by the Sea Education Association, the patch is estimated to be hundreds of kilometers across in size, with a density of more than 200,000 pieces of debris per square kilometer.[43][44][45][46] The source of the garbage originates from human waste traveling from the rivers into the ocean and mainly consists of microplastics.[47] The garbage patch is a large risk to wildlife and humans through plastic consumption and entanglement.[48] There have only been a few awareness and clean-up efforts for the North Atlantic garbage patch such as The Garbage Patch State at UNESCO and The Ocean Cleanup, as most of the research and cleanup efforts have been done for the Great Pacific garbage patch, a similar garbage patch in the Great Pacific.[49][50]


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