The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a gyre of marine debris particles in the central North Pacific Ocean. This gyre has been known to host a lot of plastic due to the nature of the currents that carry plastic and other man-made objects from the shores where they are dumped, to one of the major gyres such as this one.
Not all plastic in the ocean ends up on the beach, and much of it gets stuck in a gyre. Image by epSos.de, posted with the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.
Despite popular belief, this "plastic island" is not really something that you can see with your eyes. It is in fact just an area in the ocean where the density of plastic waste is much higher than the rest of the ocean. New estimates suggest that there are about 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic in this patch, which sounds like it's plastic everywhere, but you have to keep in mind that the patch is estimated to be twice the size of Texas.
What I wanted to share today is a brand new scientific article that have been looking at how much plastic that is actually found in this Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and as the title say, it's as much as 16 times more than previously believed!
How the research team measured the plastic in The Great Pacific Garbage Patch
There have been many attempts to find out exactly how much plastic there is in The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and up until now researchers have been hiring boats that were trawling nets that were originally used to catch plankton. These nets would be trawling behind the boat while the researchers collected their samples, and repeated many times to get a good average number.
The big problem with using these plankton nets is that while they are good for microplastic, they don't really catch buoys, plastic bottles and other waste of this size, which obviously affected the results pretty heavily. This lead to there being a lot of estimations, and the different research groups got vastly different results based on their estimations.
The new research from a group of international scientists lead by The Ocean Cleanup foundation recently attempted a different approach. They did not settle for only one boat with one net, but rather hired 18 boats and attached a total of 652 nets of different sizes to get all the differently sized plastic particles.
A nice view of all the sites where the research team trawled nets and did aerial photos. By L. Lebreton et. al. Image is posted with the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
In addition to this they conducted aircraft surveys, and used a total of 7,300 photographs to better estimate the number of large plastic particles in the region.
The sum of it all is a study that is most likely a lot more accurate than the previous studies, but the bad news is that their estimations of the mass of the plastic waste is 16 times higher than the previously agreed upon number.
A closer look at the numbers
The research gave us some interesting numbers to look at, so let's take a closer look at them.
- There is an estimated 1,800,000,000,000 pieces of plastic in the patch. In words, this is 1.8 trillion pieces, or almost 250 pieces per human being on the planet!
- The size of the patch is between 700,000 square kilometres and 15,000,000 square kilometres, so the density of the plastic particles is not all that high, but much higher than the rest of the ocean.
The North Pacific Subtropical Convergence Zone. These currents bring the plastic to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Image is Public Domain.
- Over 99.9 % of the trash in the patch is made up from plastic polymers, so plastic really is the biggest perpetrator.
- Microplastics make up over 94 % of the plastic pieces, but only account for 8 % of the total mass of the plastic.
- Megaplastics (5cm+) is responsible for 75 % of the mass, with the intermediates accounting for the rest.
- A pieces of plastic that was inspected by the research team during the study was found to be from 1977, which shows how long it takes for it to degrade naturally!
Will The Ocean Cleanup foundation be able to clean up the patch?
The Ocean Cleanup foundation got bigger plans than just estimating the mass of the patch - they also want to clean it up! This is a huge favor to the marine life in the North Pacific Ocean, and pretty much all humans on earth who enjoys having a healthy ocean, and their goal is to clean up 50 % of the patch within the next five years.
This is a huge undertaking, and hope to raise $370 million in from corporations to finance the cleanup. This project sounds a little bit too optimistic to me, but I hope to be proven wrong about my skepticism!
Thanks for reading
The entire scientific article is available for free, so check if out if you're like my and loves to see the original sources for yourself.
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