• 3 minutes Oil Price Could Fall To $30 If Global Deal Not Extended
  • 8 minutes Why Is America (Texas) Burning Millions of Dollars Per Day Of Natural Gas?
  • 11 minutes Is $60/Bbl WTI still considered a break even for Shale Oil
  • 15 minutes CNN:America's oil boom will break more records this year. OPEC is stuck in retreat
  • 18 mins The Pope: "Climate change ... doomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony or disdain."
  • 7 hours Hormuz and surrounding waters: Energy Threats to the World: Oil, LNG, shipping markets digest new risks after Strait of Hormuz attack
  • 11 hours As Iran Nuclear Deal Flounders, France Turns To Saudi For Oil
  • 7 hours The Magic and Wonders of US Shale Supply: Keeping energy price shock minimised: US oil supply keeping lid on prices despite global risks: IEA chief
  • 16 hours Middle East on brink: Oil tankers attacked off Oman
  • 7 hours Russia removes special military forces from Venezuela . . . . Maduro gone by September ? . . . Oil starts to flow ? Think so . .
  • 10 hours Never Knew Gasoline Prices were this important!
  • 9 hours (Un)expectedly: UK Court Sets Assange U.S. Extradition Hearing For February 2020
  • 1 day Emmissions up, renewables nowhere
  • 1 day Magic of Shale: EXPORTS!! Crude Exporters Navigate Gulf Coast Terminal Constraints
  • 4 hours We Are Better Than This
  • 1 day Only one country is contemplating destroying its own resource sector: Canada
  • 8 hours The Latest: Iranian FM Says US Cannot Expect To ‘Stay Safe’
Amy Gleich

Amy Gleich

Freelance multimedia journalist. Recent graduate of the Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication's Master's Program.You can follow Amy on Twitter.

More Info

Trending Discussions

The Largest Landfill On Earth: Plastic Garbage In The Oceans?

Think about the last time you got takeout or ate at a fast food restaurant. Or the last time you bought a pre-packaged food item from a store, or drank a bottle of water or soda. Chances are, plastic was involved in all those items -- plastic that will still be around up to 1,000 years from now.  

Americans throw away over 30 million tons of plastic every year, of which only about 25 percent is recycled. The rest goes to landfills. Unfortunately, the largest “landfill” on Earth is actually in the North Pacific Ocean.

The “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” is estimated to be anywhere from 3,100 square miles to twice the size of Texas.

You may be wondering how garbage dumped on land can make it to the ocean. Well, first of all, some garbage is directly dumped into the ocean. Secondly, as Scripps Institution marine biologist Miriam Goldstein puts it, “the ocean is downhill from everywhere;” if someone in Iowa throws a bottle into a river, it will eventually end up in the ocean. Finally, about 20 percent of the debris in the garbage patch comes from sea-going vessels and oil platforms.

The Five Main Ocean Gyres
Caption: The Five Main Ocean Gyres
Credit: Wikipedia

The garbage patch forms in the North Pacific gyre, one of five main ocean gyres worldwide: North Pacific, South Pacific, North Atlantic, South Atlantic and Indian Ocean. These gyres are created when the jet stream goes one way and the trade winds go the opposite way – creating a huge, gently swirling circle. On the outside of the circle, the currents move around, but the inside remains calm, making it the perfect place for debris to accumulate.

In the case of the North Pacific gyre, pretty much everything that falls off the west coast of North America and the east coast of Asia will most likely end up in there. While the North Pacific garbage patch is the largest, each of the five gyres has its own accumulation. In fact, the trash from all five gyres put together covers 40 percent of the world’s oceans.

So what exactly are these oceanic garbage patches? Well, first let’s be clear as to what they’re not. Contrary to popular myth they are NOT huge floating trash islands. The patches are made up of millions of small and microscopic pieces of plastic. The patches won’t show up on satellite and if you were to take a boat through them, you might not even necessarily notice the plastic floating in them. So does that mean we don’t need to be concerned?  Nope. The fact that the debris is so small means that cleanup is nearly impossible. As Goldstein explains, you’d basically have to clear-cut the upper layer of the ocean to remove it all.

garbage patches 
Caption: Don’t be fooled. This photo often accompanies stories about the garbage patches, but it was actually taken at Manila Harbor. The real pieces of oceanic plastic garbage are typically smaller than your pinky fingernail.
Credit: i09.com

So the pieces are too small to easily clean up – that might make it seem as though they’re too small to do much damage, but that’s far from correct. Some of the plastic remains in large chunks and many animals and birds become entangled in them and die every year.

The plastic pellets are small enough that birds and fish mistake them for food. This is especially disastrous for birds – the plastic stays in their stomachs, keeping them from eating anything with nutritional value and causing them to slowly starve to death. For fish, whose digestive systems are much different, the effect of eating the plastic may not be so catastrophic, but scientists are still trying to understand the extent to which ingesting these plastic pellets is effecting marine life, but for some, like the albatross below, the deadly effects are clear.

Pelican  
Caption: Dead albatross with a stomach full of plastic debris
Credit: Smithsonian Museum of Natural History

Some creatures have actually been granted a boon by this massive plastic soup, but don’t feel too cheerful about that. The plastic has created a surface for small creatures like water insects, barnacles, small crustaceans and invertebrates called bryozoans. These creatures would normally not make it to the middle of the ocean, so their presence will change the ocean’s ecosystem. Especially in the case of barnacles and bryozoans – they have caused considerable damage to other ecosystems they’ve invaded.

And it’s not just about ecosystems in the middle of the ocean – the surface the plastic provides could enable these creatures to travel to places they’ve never been before, for example, their introduction to the Pacific Northwest islands’ coral reefs could be a real problem. 

So what can be done? The most important thing is for people to be aware. As biologist Goldstein puts it, “It really is an issue that effects everybody, but that’s great because that means that everybody can help.”

Using fewer plastic products would help, as would more recycling of what we already use. There are also scientists who are working to make plastic products from renewable products. According the Science channel, starches, cellulose, soy protein, vegetable oil, triglycerides and bacterial polyesters all contain polymers that can be processed to produce biodegradable plastics.

Even so, reducing the amount of new plastic dumped into the ocean won’t get rid of what’s already there. For that monumental task, The Ocean Cleanup – a group of oceanographers, marine biologists, recycling experts and engineers -- is raising money through crowd funding to launch a massive cleanup effort.

By Amy Gleich of Oilprice.com




Download The Free Oilprice App Today

Back to homepage

Trending Discussions


Leave a comment
  • Christine Hotchkiss on March 20 2016 said:
    I am an avid outdoors person who loves nature with my whole soul. I am so confused
    by America's lack of consistent recycling practices which baffles me immensely.
    I belong to fishing groups, kayaking clubs and hiking/photography groups and quite frankly we keep seeing the HUGE amounts of PLASTICS, cans and paper and styrafoam products so carelessly discarded everywhere. I always spend and I am getting others to now too at least 30 or more minutes while outdoors picking up all the debris possible and bringing it back, sorting through it and recycling as much as possible probably 85 to 90% each time. The last pick up was over 122 plastic bottles,
    64 cans, 14 cups and a few other odds and ends. Why does America have such a hard time with Recycling?
  • fred on May 03 2018 said:
    just stop going outside then

Leave a comment





Oilprice - The No. 1 Source for Oil & Energy News