Great Pacific Garbage Patch

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a large area of plastic debris in the Pacific Ocean between California and Hawaii. The patch’s size has been equated to the states of Texas and Alaska in the United States, as well as Afghanistan. Garbage from the western coast of the United States of America and the eastern coast of Japan is brought into the North Pacific sub – tropical gyre by oceanic currents such as the California Current, the North Equatorial Current, the North Pacific Current, and the Kuroshio, whose clockwise rotation draws in and traps solid matter such as plastics.

The topic has a high probability of being asked as a Current Affairs Question and as Environment and Ecology Questions in IAS Prelims and Mains.

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Facts about Great Pacific Garbage Patch

  • Charles J. Moore developed the name “Great Pacific Garbage Patch”; he was an oceanographer and a boat captain.
  • The Pacific Trash Vortex, another term for the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, is the biggest of the five maritime garbage patches on the planet.
  • The two parts namely the Eastern Garbage Patch, which stretches from California to Hawaii, and the Western Garbage Patch, which stretches from Hawaii to Japan, make up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
  • The patch is estimated to be 1.6 million square kilometres in size, or equivalent to thrice the size of country France.
  • Every year, between 1.15 and 2.41 tonnes of plastic are predicted to enter the ocean via rivers. According to a study, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch contains between 1.1 and 3.6 trillion particles of plastic. Around the world, that equates to almost 200 pieces of plastic per person.
  • Based on their size, the plastic particles in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch are divided into four categories which are as follows:
    • Micro Plastic (0.05 cm to 0.5 cm)
    • Meso Plastic (0.5 cm to 5 cm)
    • Macro Plastic (5 cm to 50 cm)
    • Mega Plastic (50 cm +)
  • The various forms of plastics discovered are further classified into the following categories:
    • Type H: Hard plastics, sheets and/or films
    • Type N: Plastic fibres, ropes and/or fishing nets
    • Type P: Pre-production plastics, spherical and/or cylindrical objects
    • Type F: Fragments of foam materials
  • Ghost fishing nets make up 46% of the total mass detected in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The issue with ghost fishing equipment is that it remains to collect marine life after it has been abandoned.
  • Oceanographers and ecologists recently determined that 70% of marine garbage descends to the ocean’s depths. This suggests that the ocean floor beneath the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is as contaminated as, if not more so, than the surface.

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Note: IAS exam could ask basic details about this topic as it has been in the news recently.

Significance

  • Due to the ocean gyres serving as conveyor belts, the waste accumulated is doubtful to ever escape. The circular movements of the oceanic currents and winds prevent the debris from moving in any direction other than the gyre’s centres.
  • The Great Pacific Garbage Patch receives a huge amount of things that are not biodegradable, meaning they do not break down in water. The sun’s heat, water currents, and pressure continue to break them down into tiny fragments.
    • The plastic and its other harmful compounds lead to bioaccumulation and biomagnification within the ecosystem.
    • These tiny plastic fragments then enter into the food web thereby endangering lives of not just humans but of other animals too.
  • Microplastics are more dangerous to marine wildlife since they can now be confused for food and eaten by fish, sea turtles, and sea mammals.
  • Plastic bags are frequently mistaken for jellyfish by loggerhead sea turtles, and albatrosses confuse plastic resin pellets as fish eggs by feeding them to their offspring, resulting in the animals’ death due to malnutrition or burst organs. Furthermore, microplastics affect the marine food chain when they accumulate in places rich in algae and plankton.
  • Plastics which have been broken down into smaller pieces by a process known as photodegradation are more likely to absorb contaminants like PCBs from the saltwater. Plastics release colourants and compounds like “Bisphenol A” during photodegradation, which have been connected to health and environmental issues.

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