North Atlantic garbage patch
The North Atlantic garbage patch is an area of man-made marine debris found floating within the North Atlantic Gyre, originally documented in 1972. 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. The source of the garbage originates from human waste traveling from the rivers into the ocean and mainly consists of microplastics. The garbage patch is a large risk to wildlife and humans through plastic consumption and entanglement. 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.
Location and size
The patch is located from 22°N to 38°N and its western and eastern boundaries are unclear. The debris zone shifts by as much as 1,600 km (990 mi) north and south seasonally, and drifts even farther south during the El Niño-Southern Oscillation, according to the NOAA. 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 (one piece per five square metres, on average). The concentration of plastic in the North Atlantic garbage patch has stayed mostly constant even though the global plastic production has had a five-fold increase over the 22 year study. This may be caused by the plastics sinking beneath the surface or breaking down into smaller pieces that can pass through the net.
The North Atlantic garbage patch originates from human waste that travels from continental rivers into the ocean. Once the trash has made it into the ocean, it is centralized by gyres, which collect trash in large masses. The surface of the garbage patch consists of microplastics such as polyethylene and polypropylene which make up common household items. Denser material that is thought to exist under the surface of the ocean includes plastic called polyethylene terephthalate (PETE) that is used to make soft drink and water bottles. However, these denser plastics are not observed in the North Atlantic garbage patch because the methods to collect samples only capture the surface microplastics.
A joint study by the Sea Education Association (SEA), Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), and the University of Hawaii at Manoa collected plastic samples in the western North Atlantic and Caribbean Sea from 1986 to 2008. Nearly 7,000 students from the SEA semester program conducted 6,136 surface plankton net tows on board SEA's sailing research vessels over 22 years, yielding more than 64,000 plastic pieces. Nikolai Maximenko of the University of Hawaii in Honolulu developed a computer model to describe how plastics are accumulated from converging surface currents to form garbage patches. The model uses data from more than 1,600 satellite-tracked trajectories of drifting buoys to map out surface currents. The plastic data collected by the students at SEA validated Maximenko’s model, and researchers were able to successfully predict the plastic accumulation in the North Atlantic Ocean.
Effect on wildlife and humans
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. 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. Animals who feed off of the bottom of the ocean risk sweeping microplastics into their systems while gathering food. Smaller marine life such as mussels and worms sometimes mistake plastic for their prey. Larger animals are also affected by plastic consumption because they feed on fish, and are indirectly consuming microplastics already trapped inside their prey. 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. 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 their next meal. 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.
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. Trash that has the possibility of wrapping itself around a living organism may cause strangulation or drowning. If the trash gets stuck around a ligament that is not vital for airflow, the ligament may grow with a malformation. Plastic’s existence in the ocean becomes cyclical because marine life that is killed by ultimately decompose in the ocean, re-releasing the plastics into the ecosystem.
Awareness and clean-up efforts
Few efforts have been made to clean up the North Atlantic Garbage Patch, as removing the microplastics “would likely cause as much harm as good because of all the other small creatures in the ocean that would get filtered out too”. On 11 April 2013 in order to create awareness, artist Maria Cristina Finucci founded The Garbage Patch State at UNESCO –Paris in front of Director General Irina Bokova . The federally recognized Garbage Patch State was the first of a series of events under the patronage of UNESCO and of Italian Ministry of the Environment, sparking a series of art exhibits across the world used to bring attention to the size and severity of the garbage patches and incite awareness and action.
Dutch inventor Boyan Slat and his nonprofit organization The Ocean Cleanup is developing advanced technologies to rid the oceans of plastic. Cleanup is planned to start in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch first, and eventually move around to the other patches across the globe. Aside from cleaning the microplastics from the oceans, the Ocean Cleanup is also developing technologies to remove larger pieces of plastic from rivers, which are largely attributed as the main sources of plastic in the ocean.
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- Ecosystem of the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre
- Great Pacific garbage patch
- Indian Ocean garbage patch
- Sargasso Sea
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