As we near the end of Plastic Free July, we can admit that sometimes, plastic is a really good thing. Plastic is used in life-saving medical devices, transportation, and all over the world to purify water and do incredible things. We’re extremely grateful for the way that plastic has improved and saved lives over the past few decades and we're happy we live in a world with it!
However, plastic can also be a really bad thing despite its convenience.
The worst plastic that we’re talking about is the single use plastic. You know, the little plastic straw you use to stir in the pre-packaged creamer into your disposable coffee cup. These are the types of plastic that outlive their use after a few minutes before they’re tossed, and end up on the planet for hundreds of years… at some point possibly destroying our oceans. And we love our oceans!
Seriously, look at how pretty.
But also, look how nasty....
What you’re looking at is called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch isn’t all that you would imagine. Instead of an island, it’s more like soup with pockets of large trash stuck together floating around.
How does the plastic get there?
Ocean gyres are circular ocean currents created by wind patterns and the earth’s rotation. Plastics get caught in the current and go around and around and around in a vortex-like pattern until they collect in one huge area, the center of the gyre. That’s what happened to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
How big is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch?
Due to the currents and the growing amount of plastic, the size is always changing. It’s hard to get an exact size of the garbage patch, especially because plastic is all over the ocean. However, most people say it’s about twice the size of Texas which is about 540,000 square miles. There are about 1.9 million bits of plastic for every square mile.
Where does the plastic come from?
80% of waste in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and the rest of the ocean, comes from land waste - from us! Just 20% comes from boats and offshore rigging. Trash travels for about six years before it reaches the patch from the United States, whereas it only takes one year to get from Asia to the patch.
Is this the only garbage patch?
No. There five major ocean gyres, each with their own huge garbage patch. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is simply the largest and what’s gained the most public attention. Smaller garbage patches exist all over the ocean.
There are also 500 dead-zones in the ocean where life is completely unsustainable due to pollution.
What happens to plastic in the ocean?
About 30% of ocean floats on the surface of the water. These are the lightweight plastics, like plastic bags and water bottles. The currents move them thousands of miles. These currents combined with sunlight can break up the plastic into smaller and smaller pieces until eventually they become something called microplastics. There are two types of microplastics: primary and secondary. Primary microplastics are plastics produced to be small, like microbeads, and secondary microplastics are fragments of larger pieces of plastic that have been physically degraded. Microplastics are what make the Great Pacific Garbage Patch look soup-y.
Denser plastics sink below the surface. Approximately 70% of ocean plastic isn’t visible. So while the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is ginormous, it’s really only the tip of the plastic iceberg.
How does plastic kill animals?
Animals may confuse plastic with food. Birds assume brightly covered plastic are fish, turtles think plastic bags are jellyfish, fish just eat everything. 90% of seabirds have eaten plastic. Plastic wreaks havoc on an animal’s digestive tract, if it can get that far. One 2.5” long fish was found to have 84 pieces of plastic in its gut. Sometimes the pieces are too big and the animal chokes and dies on the plastic. The plastic can also get lodged in an animal’s stomach, taking up space. This gives the signal that the animal is full and doesn’t need to eat anymore food, so the animal starves to death. Other plastic waste, such as discarded fishing nets, traps animals and drowns them. This is known as “ghost fishing.”
Plastic on the surface also blocks sunlight from reaching the animals below. Algae and plankton rely on some sunlight to survive and die without it. Since they’re at the bottom of the totem pole, the entire food chain is altered.
How does this affect us?
Plastics in the ocean are still carrying chemicals like BPA, phthalates, and other endocrine disruptors. These plastics, and the chemicals they contain, make their way up the food chain. When fish consume pieces of plastic, and we consume fish, we’re consuming the plastic and the chemicals as well. How gross is that? That’s like going to a restaurant and eating your plastic straw instead of throwing it away and having the straw eventually making its way up the food chain and end back up on your plate inside your fish.
How is the garbage patch being cleaned up?
Well… it’s not really being cleaned up. The patch is in international waters and absolutely massive. Experts have said that 67 ships cleaning up plastic for one year would only be able to clean up less than 1%.
Is this just in the ocean?
No. Plastics are in every type of body of water. There is much more research done on ocean plastics, but one study was done on fish in freshwater streams in France. We couldn’t believe that this is the only study to have been done on the effects of microplastics on freshwater fish! Unfortunately, it’s true and this is a heavily under researched issue. The results of the study found that 12% of those fish were found to have microplastics in their system, but this number can change depending on the type of fish and their feeding habits.
What can you do?
The best way to clean up the ocean is to stop it from getting bigger.
Follow the 5 R’s:
REDUCE: Minimize your plastic consumption. Refusing leads to reducing!
REUSE: If you do have plastic, keep reusing it. Reusable plastic water bottles are still plastic, but they’re also reusable! So don’t throw them out- those can end up in the ocean to!
REPURPOSE: So many items come packaged in plastic. See what you can do with it! If you have a face scrub in a plastic container, clean it out when you’re done and use it to store items. Or, learn how to make your own facial scrub and use that as a container!
RECYCLE: Only 9% of plastic in the US is recycled! Can you believe that?! We couldn’t… until we really thought about it and started monitoring what we recycle and what we throw out. Most things are recyclable! Like your tube of toothpaste.
Marcus Eriksen, founder of the 5 Gyres, says,“What we now know is that if we stop adding more plastic to the ocean, in time the gyres will kick out the plastic pollution they currently hold. If you want to clean the gyre, clean your beach.”
Beach clean-ups are one of the easiest and most effective ways to clean our oceans.
If you’re lucky enough to live near a beach, go for a walk and pick up all the trash you see. This saves it from getting pulled pack into the ocean or eaten by birds.
What brands are there supporting plastic clean-up?
United By Blue. UBB is a sustainable and ethical brand with products ranging from clothes to backpacks. For each product sold, they clean up 1 pound of trash from our waterways. To date they have cleaned up over 1 million pounds of ocean trash. Not just donated money to organizations, but gotten into the water themselves and pulled the trash out.
Norton Point. A sustainable eyewear company, their glasses are made out of ocean plastic and plant-based materials. They also donate 5% of purchases to research and education about ocean plastics.
Patagonia. We are always pleasantly surprised with the efforts Patagonia goes to be a sustainable, healthy, ethical brand. Patagonia has done extensive research on the effects of their products on the ocean, and is always changing their practices in order to minimize their negative impact as more research comes out.
J. Zalasiewicz, et al., The geological cycle of plastics and their use as a stratigraphic indicator of the Anthropocene, Anthropocene (2016)