An “island” of trash, consisting largely of plastics, in the Pacific has many names: the plastic island, the great pacific garbage patch etc. This “island” actually amounts to floating debris approximately double the size of Texas. The trash has been brought together in the Pacific by ocean currents.
The “island” is located between Hawaii and California and is known to many seafarers which have sailed in the area. The debris is the result of trash on beaches, trash in rivers and even trash directly from boats. The powerful current which has caused all the trash to group together is known as the North Pacific Gyre.
A study on micro-plastic in the North Pacific by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography was recently published in the journal Biology Letters. The team of researchers collected data on the plastic they encountered off the coast of California in 2009. Their findings were then able to be compared to similar studies dating back to the 1970s. The team determined that the level of plastic pieces in the region is one hundred times greater that the in the 1970s.
In addition to the findings regarding plastic waste levels, the team also found that the plastic waste is enabling some species to prosper, albeit not the species which ingest the waste itself. The team determined that the marine insect Halobates sericeus was in greater numbers in regions with high levels of plastic pieces. This was found to be due to the species ability to lay their eggs on the tiny pieces of plastic rather than their usual locations, such as on seabird feathers. The team had considered it likely that the toxins from the plastic would affect their presence, which has thus far proven false.
Overall the impacts of plastics entering the oceans are enormous. Thousands of animals die yearly due to ingestion and entanglement in plastic debris. The chemicals from the plastics breaking down are also accumulating in the seas and the creatures consuming the plastic (if they do not perish altogether). In addition, issues are arising where some species are using plastic to travel the seas and end up farther than they can afford to be from their normal area.
The researchers will also be researching the more far-reaching impacts of plastic waste, such as the impact of more hard surfaces in the oceans. One of the Scripps researchers, Miriam Goldstein, stated: “In the North Pacific, for example, there’s no floating seaweed like there is in the Sargasso Sea in the North Atlantic. And we know that the animals, the plants and the microbes that live on hard surfaces are different to the ones that live floating around in the water. So, what plastic has done is add hundreds of millions of hard surfaces to the Pacific Ocean. That’s quite a profound change.”