Bad news for Earth and its inhabitants: there are 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic weighing in at 80,000 metric tons floating in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch — these numbers are up to sixteen times higher than previous estimates.
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP) covers an area bigger than France, Germany and Spain combined.
This new research has been brought forth by the Ocean Cleanup Foundation, which led a three-year mapping project accompanied by an aerial sensor company, international scientists, and minds from six different universities. The findings were published in Scientific Reports and picked up by media outlets worldwide.The Great Pacific Garbage Patch floats between Hawaii and California and contains the largest accumulation of ocean plastics on Earth — much of this plastic waste is made up of abandoned fishing gear. In the past, researchers were unable to quantify the plastic issue accurately because their methods limited their research — they used fine mesh nets less than a meter in size, which made it impossible to capture plastic objects bigger than their nets’ size.
Instead of only using fine mesh nets, the Ocean Cleanup Foundation crossed the debris field with 30 vessels at the same time and used aircraft technology to survey the entire area. Most of the vessels used standard nets, but the fleet’s mothership used two six-meter-wide devices, allowing the team to sample larger objects. When the mothership’s devices were not large enough, the aircraft came into play. Fitted with high-tech sensors, it collected 3D scans of the plastic waste.The fleet collected 1.2 million plastic samples from the water, while the aerial sensors scanned over 300 km2 of the ocean surface.
The Ocean Cleanup Foundation results show that GPGP consists of over 10 kg of plastic per km2 and measures 1.6 million square kilometers. 92% of the mass is from larger objects and 8% of the mass is from microplastics (plastic pieces smaller than 5 mm).
The GPGP was first noticed in 1997 by Charles Moore, a U.S. boat captain. Sailing from Hawaii to southern California, Moore said that he had stumbled upon ‘plastic…as far as the eye could see.”
Why Should We Care?
1. Plastic is swallowed by marine animals, which are eaten by humans. Previous research suggests that humans ingest 11,000 pieces of microplastic each year.
2. Plastic toxins cause health issues including problems with the immune system, different forms of cancer, and birth defects.
3. Scientists estimate that there is a 1:2 ratio of plastic to plankton. If this is not remedied, we will lose the ocean’s fish — by 2050 plastic will outweigh fish.
4. Research shows that plastic ingestion kills around one million seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals every year.
5. Plastic pollution in our oceans is driving several marine species to extinction.
6. Studies show half of the world’s sea turtles have ingested plastic.
What is Being Done?
The Ocean Cleanup Foundation’s founder, 23-year-old Boyan Slat, says that there is no time to wait: cleanup plans must start now. The foundation will be leading a $32 million campaign to clean up the plastic mess.
You can help too. Use eco-friendly alternatives to plastic, even when it might inconvenience you. Instead of plastic food wrap, use beeswax wrap. Instead of disposable diapers, use cloth diapers. Don’t use plastic cutlery, bags, or containers. There are so many ways you can reduce plastic waste.
Be part of the change — future generations will thank you for it, and if sea turtles could talk, they would too.
Photo Credits: The Ocean Cleanup