Do you ever wonder where all your waste goes? After you dispose of that Styrofoam cup, recycle that plastic bottle, or toss a plastic bag into the garbage, what happens next? Well, most of the waste we put into our trash cans is transported to a landfill, incinerator or recycling center. However, a vast amount is still inappropriately disposed of and ends up polluting our ocean.
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is an enormous mass of trash that sits in the North Pacific Ocean between the Western coast of California and the Eastern coast of Japan. The Garbage Patch is twice the size of Texas and is caused by the subtropical conversion zone, circulating and collecting the trash. The trash vortex is comprised of everything from rubber tires to plastic soda can rings and fishing nets, but the vast majority is made of plastics. An estimated 80% of the trash vortex is composed of plastic and other debris from land. Plastic is not biodegradable, which means bacteria and other microorganisms do not recognize this foreign substance as food. Plastics can be photodegraded, which means the sunlight is able to break down the plastic into extremely small pieces, but those pieces still exist. However, this is arguably more detrimental to the marine ecosystem and aquatic life.
About 100,000 marine animals die annually from plastic pollution, and 70% of photodegraded plastic particles sink to the ocean floor where benthic or bottom dwelling organisms consume the particles. Fish are one of the most affected by the plastic pollution because fish view the small pieces of plastic as zooplankton or other forms of food. Sea turtles view larger pieces of debris, like plastic bags, as sea lettuce or algae and sea birds are also commonly seen eating the plastic. An estimated 98% of Albatross birds have plastic in their stomachs. The plastic provides no nutrition so many of the seabirds die due to starvation. Marine mammals also are affected by the trash vortex because they become entangled or trapped by fishing nets and other forms of large debris. The trash and debris found in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is adversely affecting marine life.
So, what can we do? Cleaning up the garbage patch by removing the trash and debris from the ocean is one way to improve the ocean and decrease the trash vortex. However, this will not stop the source of the pollution. Instead purchasing biodegradable plastics will allow the bacteria to break down the trash and prevent the plastics from persisting in the environment. In addition, recycling more will also help to prevent the trash from ending up in the ocean. Even better, we can reduce plastic consumption by using reusable dishware and water bottles. It is our responsibility to reduce consumption and to be more environmentally conscious in order to preserve and protect our ocean and this world.