How the world’s secret “eighth continent” is destroying our oceans and livelihoods
You might think the title above is the name of a 1970s Prog Rock band, a contemporary of Liquid Tension Experiment, The Pineapple Thief and Sleepytime Gorilla Museum [yes, I had to look them up, I’m not that much of a nerd!]
All joking apart, the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” is perhaps one of the least well-known environmental disasters threatening our planet. This floating “eighth continent” of debris and plastics is something we are all playing a part in creating, but can all take a stand in solving.
What is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch?
Across the vast spaces of our world’s oceans are five zones known as gyres which act as enormous, but slow-moving whirlpools circulating our planet’s water around the world. There are gyres in the North and South Pacific, the Indian Ocean, and the North and South Atlantic.
Immense quantities of human rubbish and debris, and between 1.15 and 2.41 million tonnes of plastic, are coming from rivers each year and reaching our oceans. If you then consider this has been happening for decades — about a 10-fold increase since 1945 — the scale of this disaster should be no surprise.
Experts consider the Great Pacific Garbage Patch to be around 1.6m square kilometres in size. Taken another way that’s three times the size of France or double the space of Texas.
Recent research suggests the source of the ocean pollution to be:
“About 54 per cent of the debris in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch comes from land-based activities in North America and Asia. The remaining 20 per cent of debris in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch comes from boaters, offshore oil rigs, and large cargo ships that dump or lose debris directly into the water. The majority of this debris — about 705,000 tons — is fishing nets.”
With such vast quantities of non-biodegradable materials, plastics, in particular, entering the oceans, and the way their currents operate, many predicted this phenomenon.
With plastics and other materials being discarded into rivers once they reach the shoreline, the ocean gyres then pull them in. This accumulation over decades is now what we see as the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch”, the “Pacific Trash Vortex” or our planet’s floating “eighth continent”. Take your pick on the name, but this disaster is real, with research showing the rate of plastic pollution in this zone increasing and spreading to other stretches of water.
So what’s the big deal, anyway?
The chances are you don’t live in the middle of an ocean. You’ve never seen this floating island of our global detritus. And you do your bit for the environment by putting the right things in your recycling bin every week.
Well, me too. But there are a few things to remember.
An increasing amount of the debris swirling around the ocean is plastic and the growing prevalence of “microplastics” — tiny bits of debris less than 5mm in length. If you combine the persistent and non-biodegradable nature of plastic and the growth of microplastics, this all presents harm to life within our oceans and then to us. This includes:
- The risk of sea life being caught up in or ingesting this debris, e.g. fishing nets or plastic and microplastics, and the onward risk of this entering the human food chain
- The chemical impacts of pollutants entering the oceans
- Damage to the fishing industry either through the reduction or quality of marine stocks
If you want to take your chances of eating a fish that might have a gut full of plastic deposits, that’s up to you. But it’s making me think twice.
Are our oceans doomed?
Let’s hope not, for all of our sakes!
There is good and bad news on this point. Following the “discovery” of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in 1997, substantial efforts to counter this crisis have taken place. Of particular note is The Ocean Cleanup project.
While this initiative is not only focused on the Pacific Ocean, it forms a core part of its mission which aims to remove 90% of ocean plastic by 2040.
This is one approach to addressing the problem. That’s the good news.
What’s not so promising is that in 2019 National Geographic estimated 91% of the world’s plastic wasn’t being recycled. If you add into this equation that it takes centuries for it to degrade and that incineration of this volume is just 12%, the scale of the problem is stark.
You might do your best in separating out your weekly trash to go into your recycling bin, but there’s plenty more we can do. And that’s where the problem lies. At this moment there is insufficient progress or approaches in place to tackle how we produce single-use plastics or recyclable alternatives.
But what are single-use plastics? The Natural Resources Defense Council describes them as:
“Single-use plastics are goods that are made primarily from fossil fuel–based chemicals (petrochemicals) and are meant to be disposed of right after use — often, in mere minutes. Single-use plastics are most commonly used for packaging and service ware, such as bottles, wrappers, straws, and bags.”
So we’re facing two problems here — long-lasting plastics and the continued use of polluting fossil fuels. Not a brilliant prospect, is it?
It’s time to make a choice
The need to reduce our “carbon footprint” to help steer our planet away from impending climate catastrophe is part of the public consciousness. This is less the case with plastics, yet there are also movements and initiatives focusing on how to reduce our “plastic footprint”.
Remember, this is not just about turning into a hippy to protect the animals and hug a tree, this is about all of us. Polluted rivers teeming with microplastics might be the only water supply for millions of people. This needs to be safe to drink.
A lack of healthy fishing stocks might be what pushes communities below the poverty line if their source of income vanishes. Contaminated fish with guts full of plastic could be on your plate without you even realising it.
Is this what we want?
Don’t forget also what drives the companies and large corporations mass-producing plastic products — profit. If we stop buying their goods, boycott their brands and move to alternatives they will have a simple choice:
They either change to something more sustainable or they lose their profits.
You have a choice too. You can continue with your weekly recycling, or you can also look at the plastic choices you make and take a different road. I know which path I want to be on.
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