When trash is thrown into the ocean it can be easy to forget about it, out of sight out of mind. That trash that was just released into the ocean does not just disappear, it can be carried to the next beach over or end up at the bottom of the ocean for ground feeders to eat from. Most times trash will be trapped in any of the garbage patches, also known as trash gyres.
What is a Gyre?
A gyre is a product of rotating ocean currents that creates pockets of circulation in the ocean, almost like a whirlpool motion. On earth there are 5 gyres: the North Atlantic Gyre, South Atlantic Gyre, North Pacific Gyre, South Pacific Gyre, and Indian Ocean Gyre. These Gyres are very helpful when it comes to creating movement through the ocean’s water around the globe. This helps produce upwellings that push nutrition from the depths of the ocean so that animals such as whales can feed from it.
Gyres to Garbage Patches
When does a gyre turn into a garbage patch? Because of the rotating ocean currents, marine debris will get caught up in the current and converge in the same area which gives the name “patch”. The debris as an assortment of different sizes ranging from fishing nets to tiny microplastics. These different size pieces make cleaning up the trash near imposable. If you were to use a net to clean up the trash only a fraction would be captured. Most microplastics are smaller than 5mm and spread across the surface all the way to the bottom of the ocean. This can make the nickname garbage patch misleading because it makes a picture of a floating trash island when in reality it is almost imposable to find its exact size. The biggest and most well-known of the gyres is the Great Pacific garbage patch. This is located between Hawaii and California. It is estimated that there are about 80,000 tonnes of plastic within the patch. It is the well-known due to the size of the conveyor belt and how much trash has been accumulated over the years.
Effects on Marine and Human life
Because the patches are so remote it is hard to study the impact firsthand. We do know that it has had an effect in several ways to not only marine life but to human life as well. The most prominent threat is the entanglement of marine life. Bigger objects that are caught such as fishing net can cause injury to animals passing through. Getting entangled can lead to losing the use of fins prohibiting animals to escape and eventually starving. It can also become imbedded into the necks and tails. Another inevitable threat is the ingestion of the plastic. It is a common conception that animals will mistake trash as food, for example a sea turtle may mistake a plastic bag for a jelly fish. The debris takes up room in the animal’s stomachs making the animal think that it is full which will lead them to stop eating real food and unknowingly starving themselves. This can correlate directly to the health of humans. When we consume seafood the microplastics can be transported into our systems, this process started as small and plankton consuming nano plastics which moves up the food chain found in salmon and tuna which is highly sourced for human consumption.
What Can We Do?
Although this news is tragic and depressing, it is not hopeless. Although there are plastics that my never full decompose, larger products can be removed which then will stop the progression to microplastics. There are studies happening as we speak to try and solve the solution of microplastics but the work that humans can do is prevention. Some states/countries have started to make a difference by banning the use of single use plastics and plastic bags. Stand up to Trash has made it our mission to do our part as a nonprofit to make the difference we can by organizing beach clean ups and well as educating our community to the impact that we have on the environment. The work starts with just on person, it may seem like a small gesture to pick up trash when you see it but if everyone just picked up one piece of trash today that would be 7.6 billion pieces of trash that would not end up in the ocean. Everyone has the opportunity to be the change.
Written by Kaeley Sterkel
Images from NOAA