The Great Pacific Garbage Patch (emphasis on the great) — a mammoth collection of floating trash in the north Pacific ocean, strewn between California and Hawaii — has increased by an enormous scale, according to a new study published Thursday. The garbage patch is now apparently twice the size of Texas. It has grown more than 600,000 square miles with Ocean plastic floating inside an area of 994,193 million miles.
A comprehensive study conducted by a team of scientists led by Boyan Slat — the head of the organization Ocean Cleanup — and published in the Scientific Reports, discovered an estimated 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic in the patch. Microplastics accounted for 8 percent of the total mass of plastic, much of it is hidden from the naked eye, partly because some of them was broken down into smaller and smaller bits over time “by the action of sun, temperature variations, waves and marine life.”
Most of the debris floating on the surface was abandoned fishing gear. The study found that 46 percent of the trash was abandoned fishing gear, including ropes, oyster spacers, eel traps, crates, and baskets. The significantly high number has startled researchers, as the accepted amount of trash composed of fishing gear is 20 percent. However, the study gaged that 20 percent of the debris was from the 2011 tsunami that struck Japan.
Laurent Lebreton, an oceanographer with the Ocean Cleanup and one of the authors of the study, told National Geographic, “I knew there would be a lot of fishing gear, but 46 percent was unexpectedly high. Initially, we thought fishing gear would be more in the 20 percent range. That is the accepted number [for marine debris] globally — 20 percent from fishing sources and 80 percent from land.”
Lebreton said he expected to find more plastic, given the amount of plastic waste that goes into the ocean, which is estimated to be about 8 million tons per year.
“Obviously a lot of plastic is missing and one explanation is yes, a lot of it is likely sinking on the sea bed,” Lebreton said.
Nick Mallos, the director of the Trash Free Seas Program at the nonprofit organization Ocean Conservancy, was just as perturbed with the lack of visible evidence on plastic floating in the ocean surface as Lebreton.
He told NPR, “I think that underscores this ongoing, age-old question — where are all the missing plastics? There’s a lot of pathways along the way, whether it’s sinking into sediment, whether it’s being ingested by marine organisms, whether it is actually being spit out onto the beaches.”
An estimated 100,000 marine animals are strangled, suffocated, or injured by plastics every year. The study concluded that the debris was four to 16 times larger than has been previously estimated for the patch.
The study shows that what was only deemed as a slight exaggeration before, has now become a stark reality. Although the patch still cannot be deemed as an island, a myth perpetuated by advertising professionals Michael Hughes and Dalatando Almeida, since there was no surface to stand on. However, the duo managed to “rope in” former Vice President Al Gore as its first “citizen.”
Even though the advertisers were unsuccessful in their attempt to declare it as a separate country — they sent a petition in September to the United Nations urging to recognize the Trash patch as the world’s 196th country — they did manage to bring the growing problem in the ocean area, which is increasing at an exponential pace, into the spotlight.