Mad About Science: The Great Pacific Garbage Patch

By Brenden Bobby
Reader Columnist

This week’s topic is courtesy of Lyndsie Kiebert. Thanks, Lyndsie! Sorry it took me so long to write about it.

Humans generate an unfathomable amount of garbage. Most of this garbage is plastic, which can be difficult to recycle and adheres to one simple rule: always follow the path of least resistance. This begins at a human level, when the path of least resistance is to discard plastic trash wherever is most convenient, which is usually the ground or the water. Wherever it lands, the path of least resistance is generally downward, or following the currents of water, which always leads to the ocean. Once in the ocean, the path of least resistance is a fluid, changing thing based on ocean currents, wind, or marine life. Whatever that path may be, it begins to coalesce en masse in the ocean.


The thing about plastic is it’s immortal, and when we see it break down it’s not degrading into usable elements (such as a tuna sandwich breaking down into components that bacteria, animals or algae can use), it’s just breaking into smaller and smaller pieces until we can’t see it anymore. This doesn’t mean it’s harmless, and in fact the opposite seems to be true. We believe microplastics, bits of plastic broken down to a microscopic scale, are one of the largest contributors to marine life dying off, as well as a major source of human carcinogens.

Our bodies aren’t designed to digest plastic, so when it ends up in our drinking water and starts mingling with our cells, bad things inevitably happen. It’s an easy problem to ignore because we can’t see it, and we can’t reliably track it. However, just because we can’t, doesn’t mean it’s not there. We can’t see black holes, but we know they’re there. We’ve observed the effect of black holes on nearby stars. We’re observing the effect of microplastics on our environment, and ourselves, therefore we know they exist.

In fact, when you talk about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, you think of islands of plastic waste congealed together smothering tuna and sea turtles, but that’s only a tiny fraction of what this thing actually is. Due to much of this garbage patch being microplastics that are constantly moving because of ocean currents, it’s incredibly difficult to nail down a precise size of this thing. What we do know, is it’s at least the size of Texas, but research is showing it’s probably closer to being the size of Russia. That’s literally an entire country made of garbage just swirling around the ocean. We can’t even begin to imagine how much damage this is doing to our planet, but we’re starting to get a glimpse.

How much seafood do you eat? If you’re like me, you enjoy the occasional can of tuna. Scientists have been recording a growing amount of microplastics in canned tuna in the past few years. How did it get there? The tuna filtered it in through their gills, they ate it when they ate other fish, they lived in it their entire lives while it was absorbed by their cells and ended up in their meat, which was harvested and then digested by us.

I’m pretty sure you’ll lose a lot of weight on the new Carcinogen Ultra-X 900 Day Challenge Diet, but it’s hard to rock a bikini bod when you’re stuck in an unflattering hospital gown.

This is just the tip of the plastic iceberg. Paired with warming waters, we’re seeing fish we need to sustain our growing population dying off or migrating by the millions. Washington State is struggling with harvesting Salmon because of this right now.

It’s not all doom and gloom. There is promising research going on now for plastic collectors. “The Ocean Cleanup” is a project proposed by Boyan Slat in 2012 that would have collection platforms set up in key locations along ocean currents, allowing the currents to push mass amounts of plastics (including microplastics) to them, where ships could come in and collect a hull full of trash and ship it back to the mainland for recycling and processing at profit. It was such a good idea that its first collection site began its maiden voyage in 2018. I know that sounds like a long time, but when it comes to anything involving environmental science and cleaning our environment, that’s like breaking the freaking sound barrier.

You know what they say, though. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Though most of the plastic comes from China, Indonesia and Thailand (By no coincidence, these are places the U.S. ships refuse plastic to for recycling and industry), there are things we can do here in the states to help keep our trash from ending up in our shrimp scampi.

Recycle! If recycling isn’t offered in your area, get with your neighbors, sign some petitions, make enough noise to get recycling in your area. Companies whine about losing money with recycling, but I whine about dying of cancer.

Make conscious choices at the register. Do you buy plastic utensils because they’re cheaper than silverware? I guarantee you spend more on plastic utensils per year than you would on permanent metal utensils and detergent to clean them per decade. If you’re in a pinch for a barbecue or picnic, an extra 15 cents or a dollar for compostable utensils are not unreasonable to pay. If all else fails, I’ll eat like a caveman. I have no shame!

Use reusable or cloth bags. Reusable plastic bags are better than the single-use bags that end up forming a giant plastic ball in our cupboards. Cloth are even better. If you get some from a company that really cares about their product you can get some beefy hemp fiber or burlap that can fit a ton of groceries and be passed down to your kids.

Change starts with the consumer. We can’t blame corporations for misbehaving when we enable misbehavior. The better we act and the more noise we make about behaving well, the more likely we are to leave a world worth sharing behind for our children and their kids.

See you next week.

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