Thriving Ecosystem Found in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch: What it Means for Clean Up
Introduction: The Great Pacific Garbage Patch
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch sits in a broad expanse of ocean between California and Hawaii. Currents swirl around a large area, and the flows create a relatively calm center in which marine debris becomes stuck (see our ocean currents page to learn more about these currents and why they’re important).
By all accounts, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is massive. In Scientific Reports volume 8 (Article number 4666), scientists estimated that the plastic in the patch weighs about 80,000 tons. Further, they report that the size of the patch is increasing exponentially.
The Problem with the Patch
Plastic pollution in our oceans presents three types of threats:
- Entanglement. Plastic debris often includes lost or discarded fishing nets. This debris can injure, trap, and kill a range of animals in the ecosystem.
- Ingestion. Animals eat plastics, which can lead to malnutrition. Because their stomachs feel full from the ingested plastic, they eat less actual food. Even more tragic, adult birds mistake the plastic for food and feed it to their chicks. When smaller fish eat plastic, the animals higher in the food chain also ingest plastic. Ultimately, all life forms in the ecosystem (including people) get exposed to the dangers of these plastics.
- Spread of non-native species. Water-borne plastics can transport algae, barnacles, crabs, and other animals. This can include invasive species that overcrowd or disrupt ecosystems.
Consequently, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch causes significant damage to the natural world.
The Plastic Doesn’t Stay in the Garbage Patch
While prevailing currents drive a lot of plastic into the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, that doesn’t mean it stays there permanently. Much of the plastic may leave the patch, sometimes after decades at sea, and end up drifting to places like Kamilo Beach.
A remote beach on the island of Hawaii, Kamilo Beach lies near the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Due to converging ocean currents and prevailing winds, the beach is where a lot of plastic ends up when it exits the patch. This is why the spot’s nickname became “plastic beach.”
Before clean-up efforts began in earnest in the early 2000s, 10 feet tall piles of plastic were routinely reported. The Hawaii Wildlife Fund (HWF) estimates that between 15 and 20 tons of debris wash up on this beach annually. Approximately 96% of this debris is plastic. On a sad note no one is actively removing plastic at this beach location due to lack of funding.
Ocean Blue visited for 4 hours removing so much plastic and debris we assessed the need for a 30 foot trailer to keep working in this area. The Hawaii Wildlife Fund discouraged Ocean Blue by demanding our organization remove the event online immediately and misled us by saying we do not have rights to be in the area. Their fear is many people will start visiting this remote beach and our thoughts are it’s everyone’s beach and wouldn’t be nice to see thousands cleaning it up.
Meanwhile, local officials gave Ocean Blue permission to cleanup the area and the locals love what we are doing with open arms to help. We purchased land and are fundraising to build on the Big Island for a plastic collection site to store all the plastic we are removing. The budget to initiate this project is no less than $200,000. If nonprofits would work together we all would make so much more impact. All the while collaborating for the ocean can be a large fight fueled by jealousy and acting territorial in spite of our mother.
Sadly, many other beaches are in a similar predicament, including Midway Atoll. This area is known for being a site of significant battles between the U.S. and Japan in World War II. Midway is now a national wildlife refuge with approximately 40 full-time residents.
Sadly, Midway’s isolation and small population aren’t a shield. Midway is still experiencing the profound effects of plastic pollution. According to a 2016 article by CNN, so much plastic washes ashore daily that it is nearly impossible to keep the small island free of debris.
Why Cleaning Up Plastic in the Ocean is More Difficult than Expected
What can we do about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch? The concept of cleaning so much waste from the ocean is inherently daunting.
A March 4, 2022 article in Vox outlined several of the challenges posed by ocean-based plastic clean-up efforts. The authors cite such issues as inefficiency because much of the plastic is spread out and hard to retrieve.
Watch the video below to see how plastic is floating up onto the beaches and heading back to sea as the waves roll in.
Common methods for collecting plastic also catch marine life. Often, teams use an approach in which two boats drag a net between them. This is a process similar to trawling, an approach used by commercial fishers. Not surprisingly, this approach nets plastic and many forms of life.
This means the aquatic life that benefits from these clean-ups can also be its victims. Further, researchers have found that this damage may be even more significant than initially understood.
The fact that so much of the patch is microplastics also adds to the difficulties. The NOAA website reports that, by count, the bulk of plastic in the patch is smaller than 5mm in size.
In the Scientific Reports article referenced above, researchers state that microplastics account for only 8% of the weight of the debris in the patch, while comprising 94% of the pieces floating in the ocean. The smaller the plastics, the finer the nets need to be.
Record-Breaking Swim Reveals Insights on Plastic
In 2019, Ben Lecomte, a long-distance swimmer, embarked on a record-setting swim. He set out from Hawaii and ended in California, swimming directly through the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Over the course of two-and-a-half months, Lecomte swam an average of six hours a day and ultimately covered 338 nautical miles.
In an article in Vice, on May 10, 2022, Lecomte recounted what it was like swimming through the patch. Lecomte said, “At its highest concentration, it looked like a snowstorm. It was disgusting and very, very disturbing.”
The swimmer took on this mammoth endeavor to raise awareness of the plastic problem plaguing our oceans. A research crew accompanied Lecomte. Researchers collected samples from the water as they traversed the patch. They conducted an analysis of the samples they found.
The researchers uncovered a startling finding: In addition to floating plastic, there were high concentrations of floating life. This includes something called “Obligate neuston,” which is a core component of the food web at the ocean’s surface.
They found that there was a positive relationship between neuston and plastic. In other words, where there was more plastic, there was more neuston. The term neuston refers to the assemblage of organisms associated with the surface film of lakes, oceans, and slow-moving portions of streams. Plankton are plants or animals that drift in the current, while nekton are animals that can swim against them.
Where Ocean Blue Focuses on Clean-Up, and Why
Given our focus on caring for our One World Ocean, many think that Ocean Blue Project cleans debris from the ocean. However, there are many reasons why we choose to focus on cleaning up from beaches, rivers, and other areas. The goal is to remove plastic—before it enters the ocean ecosystem.
The findings revealed through Lecomte’s swim help to underscore why this is so important. Now we also know this plastic will actually become enmeshed in aquatic life. Beyond being difficult and inefficient, this means ocean-based cleanup is also damaging.
This research shows that plastic in the patch is accompanied by floating life. Virtually any effort to pick up this debris in the ocean will therefore also disrupt or destroy this ecosystem as well.
This is why it’s so critical to collect plastic debris before it gets into the ocean and the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. This is far more effective and efficient. We collect plastic before it begins to break down, and before it gets surrounded by life forms like neuston.
Learn More and Find Out How You Can Help
The scope of the problems posed by the Great Pacific Garbage Patch are massive and can feel quite overwhelming. However, the severity and urgency of these problems intensify the need to act.
Ocean Blue Project works to reduce the amount of microplastics and marine debris that travel to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Since our founding, we’ve joined with more than 6,000 volunteers and removed more than 1 Million pounds of microplastics.
If you’d like to support these efforts, please visit our donate page. We commit to you that we’ll remove five pounds of plastic for every dollar donated. Please sign up for our email newsletter to stay informed of the work we’re doing.
Author bio: Randy Budde is a freelance writer based in the Bay Area, California. When not working, he enjoys getting outside to bike, hike, and surf.