Study Shows the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is Growing Faster than Thought

A recent study published in Nature magazine reveals worrying results related to the rapid growth and actual size of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. In case you do not know what the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP) is, let us explain by quoting the scientist involved in the study: “Ocean plastic can persist in sea surface waters, eventually accumulating in remote areas of the world’s oceans. Here we characterize and quantify a major ocean plastic accumulation zone formed in subtropical waters between California and Hawaii: The Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP).”

The researchers at The Ocean Cleanup, an NGO dedicated to cleaning the world’s seas of trash, published recently the results of a three-year study aimed to determine the size of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. As we said, the results are worrying. The largest accumulation zone of ocean garbage on the planet is much worse than anyone thought: it measures 1.6 million square kilometers (three times more than the continental size of France) and contains 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic weighing 80,000 metric tons (the equivalent of 500 Jumbo Jets), and it is rapidly getting bigger.

How did we come to have a Great Pacific Garbage Patch?

According to the researchers, the level of global annual plastic consumption has reached over 320 million tons, with more plastic produced in the last decade than ever before in history. We all know that a significant amount of the produced plastic goods serves a momentary purpose. However, all the plastic ending up in the ocean converts into waste. While there are solutions to recycle or incinerate a small portion of the plastic we use globally, the vast majority of plastic products is discarded into landfills, even worse, into natural environments and ecosystems, including the oceans.

What lies inside the Great Pacific Garbage Patch?

Scientists working for The Ocean Cleanup Foundation and six collaborating universities simultaneously dragged sieve-like nets hundreds of miles across the ocean surface, collecting 1.2 million plastic samples. These samples looked like this:

  • 92% of the mass contained larger objects
  • only 8% of the mass contained microplastics

These figures are four to sixteen times higher than previously estimated. According to the scientists’ calculations, the GPGP is not just growing because we have continued to use and discard plastic over the years, but it is actually getting exponentially larger. The scientists found an average of 1.2kg of plastic in every square kilometer of ocean surface – three times the density of the 1970s, suggesting debris is rapidly accumulating. As time goes on, we seem to be using more and more plastic products per person, per year, than ever before. Without intervention, things will only get worse. In this framework, we believe it is important to listen to researchers who have conducted the study:

Dr. Laurent Lebreton, the lead author of the study, told Sky News: “It’s a strange feeling being so far from land and finding so much plastic. It’s frightening. You find objects you see in your kitchen – bottles, crates, and containers – but also fishing gear. You have all those larger debris and nets and find dead fish around it so we are really causing harm out there.”

This particular study represents a first attempt at introducing a time-coherent dynamic model of floating debris accumulation in the GPGP. The advanced technology used by the researchers allowed them to compare their currents findings with historical observations (the 1970s to present) and assess the long-term evolution of ocean plastic concentrations within and around the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

Dr. Laurent Lebreton also said that “Although it is not possible to draw any firm conclusions on the persistency of plastic pollution in the GPGP yet, this plastic accumulation rate inside the GPGP, which was greater than in the surrounding waters, indicates that the inflow of plastic into the patch continues to exceed the outflow.”

What Can we do about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and Plastic Waste in General?

Fortunately, The Ocean Cleanup also comes with solutions besides raising awareness regarding the issue: “By deploying a fleet of systems, we estimated to be able to remove 50% of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in just 5 years’ time. The concentrated plastic will be brought back to shore for recycling and sold to B2C companies. The revenue gained will help fund the cleanup expansion to the other four ocean gyres.”

However, this is not enough. Boyan Slat, Founder of The Ocean Cleanup and co-author of the study, elaborated on the relevance of the findings for his organization’s cleanup plans: “To be able to solve a problem, we believe it is essential to first understand it. These results provide us with key data to develop and test our cleanup technology, but it also underlines the urgency of dealing with the plastic pollution problem. Since the results indicate that the amount of hazardous microplastics is set to increase more than tenfold if left to fragment, the time to start is now.”

In the light of these discoveries, all we can say is that we all have to be more aware of our daily overuse of plastic and our efforts to recycle, reuse, and repurpose.

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William E. Eubanks

I'm one of the main writers on the site; mostly dealing with environmental news and ways to live green. My goal is to educate others about this great planet, and the ways we can help to protect it.

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