The Great Garbage Patch is a collection of marine debris in the North Pacific Ocean which has grown since its discovery in 1973 and now contains an estimated number of 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic within an area twice the size of France.
Imagine a plastic water bottle is discarded off the coast of California; what will happen next? It will follow the California Current south towards Mexico. There it may catch the North Equatorial Current, which crosses the vast Pacific. Near the coast of Japan, the bottle may travel north on the powerful Kuroshiro Current. Finally, the bottle will travel eastward on the North Pacific Current. Then the gently rolling vortexes of the Eastern and Western Garbage Patches will gradually draw the bottle in.
All this rubbish is heavily disrupting the ocean ecosystems. For example, different species have crossed into new territories due to large pieces of rubbish. However, a more imminent threat lurks beneath the waves; tiny bits of microplastics concentrate down there and are eaten by filter feeders (such as the sandcastle worm). These eventually make their way into the guts of larger predators. In addition, oceanographers recently discovered that about 70% of the marine debris actually sinks to the bottom of the ocean.
Microplastics are made by a process known as photo degradation. In the ocean, the sun breaks down these plastics into tinier and tinier pieces. Most of them come from plastic bags, bottle caps, plastic water bottles and Styrofoam cups. These disturb marine food webs by collecting near the surface and blocking sunlight from reaching plankton and algae below. These are the most common producers in the marine food web (organisms that can produce their own nutrients from carbon and sunlight).
These dangers are compounded by the fact that plastics absorb and release harmful pollutants. When they breakdown, they release colorants and chemicals that have been linked to environmental and health problems. Conversely, plastics also absorb pollutants from seawater which when consumed by marine life are harmful.
Sadly, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is not the only marine garbage vortex, its just the biggest.The Atlantic and Indian Oceans both have trash vortexes and even shipping routes in smaller bodies of water, such as the North Sea, are developing garbage patches.
Cover image: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Pacific_garbage_patch#/media/File:Great_Pacific_Garbage_Patch-Map-2017.jpg