Unfortunately, Pacific garbage patch has relative in Atlantic

The Pacific Garbage Patch, a floating vortex of plastic and garbage bits that has been estimated to be at least the size of Texas (if not double), has what National Geographic calls a “cousin” floating in the Atlantic Ocean. It’s not exactly exciting that ocean garbage patches are growing so much that they are starting families.

According to the National Geographic article, the Atlantic garbage patch is about one-quarter the size of the Pacific garbage patch, but its smaller size doesn’t mean it should be ignored. The fact that two vortexes of garbage and plastic bits — the Atlantic one sprawling from Cuba to Virginia — exist is a testiment to the world’s litter and waste problems.

Plastic doesn’t decompose like a banana peel or any other organic material — it photodegrades, a process in which the sun’s UV rays cause the chemical chains in plastic (polyethylene to be exact) to crack, according to Slate. The plastic instead photodegrades into smaller and smaller pieces of plastic, until they are microscopic.

Some scientists estimate that it would take hundreds if not thousands of years to fully photodegrade, although some speculate that the process of photodegradation would just continue microscopically and would never fully end. What scientists do know is that the plastic easily photodegrades in the ocean — where it has prime access to UV rays — and the plastic bits are often eaten by unsuspecting marine life.

If the plastic isn’t big enough to strange or trap and inevitably kill fish and other marine dwellers, then they will die after they breathe in or ingest the harmful smaller plastic bits that pervade their habitats, as Wired points out. Millions of seabirds and about 100,000 mammals and turtles die because of marine trash each year, according to the article, as animals often mistake floating plastic as eggs or jellyfish. Plus, the fish you eat might have been dining on plastic.

The garbage patches don’t get a lot of press because the term “garbage patch” denotes a patch of visible garbage — people expect to see an island of pure trash. But, the waste all swirls throughout the depths of the ocean like a vortex, and the ocean winds make it difficult to see from the surface. 

We shouldn’t wait until these patches turn into islands before trying to do something. Reducing our waste output completely — buying items with as little to packaging as possible, composting more, buying in bulk and not individually — will definitely help, as it doesn’t give this trash a chance to be blown off garbage trucks, littered or dumped directly into the ocean.

A good majority of the trash is plastic, so reducing plastic use would be a great thing to focus on if you’re not sure where to start. Reusable cloth bags instead of plastic ones, aluminum cans or glass instead of plastic bottles, and as mentioned choosing items with less packaging.

It’s nice to have a big family, but not when that family is a collection of trash vortexes in the middle not only of animals’ habitats, but in a really beautiful part of nature. Where’s the trash going to go when the oceans are crammed full?

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2 Responses to “Unfortunately, Pacific garbage patch has relative in Atlantic”

  1. T. Caine Says:

    Great post, Cathy. Plastic is one of the greatest enemies in our waste stream. As 12% of our waste stream its presence is considerable, and yet we only recycle 7% of it (less than any other component.) Unfortunately it is a mistake that sticks with us (and everything else) for quite a while.

    I think promoting the recycling industry is key. Whether it be from the government down or the ground up, a stronger recycling industry means more jobs, better health and less ending up in our open bodies of water. The methods you cite are also important: conservation, lifestyle changes. Hopefully we will find our way to a better road as quickly as possible.

    • cathyjwilson Says:

      I agree about the recycling industry — a big roadblock is the economy (surprise surprise) because the demand for recyclables has decreased a lot. I hope the recycling industry does pick up because city recycling programs are taken more seriously when they can bring in consistent and solid revenue for the city — plus, residents don’t get burdened with shouldering extra costs when no one is buying the recycled materials.

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