The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is probably the most famous accumulation of plastic in the world, and it’s become shorthand for how pollution threatens marine life.
But it turns out that it’s not the only massive “patch” of plastic in the oceans. In fact, there are a total of five dense soups of microplastic throughout the world, concentrated among the world’s five major gyres.
Gyres are zones of circular ocean currents, like slow-moving whirlpools. The oceans' currents flow into and out of these gyres, and as plastic gets swept to sea and travels the globe, it breaks down into smaller pieces and sometimes get trapped in these gyres, forming massive collections of mostly microscopic plastic particles.
The biggest of these gyres, and the biggest ecosystem in the world, is the Northern Pacific Gyre, which hosts the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. As the upper water column of this gyre fills with tiny bits of plastic, or microplastics, it’s harming marine life in ways that are only just beginning to be understood. For example, many marine animals end up consuming microplastic while searching for plankton and other forms of food and end up getting poisoned in the process.
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch isn’t visible by satellite, but it gained notoriety partly when an ambitious college dropout set out to clean it up. Boyan Slat, working with a team of engineers, conceived of a mechanism that filters out the particles and ships them to shore for recycling.
But the actual deployment of this technology is still a few years out and nobody knows for sure if it will work. In the meantime, the garbage patch keeps growing, and it’s joined by four other massive accumulations.
There four other major gyres in the world — the North Atlantic Gyre, the South Atlantic Gyre, the South Pacific Gyre, and the Indian Ocean Gyre — each pull in massive amounts of microplastic. Together these five currents are the “backbone” of the world’s currents and they’re all becoming swamped by plastic.
The truth is, plastic pollution goes far beyond these so-called garbage patches. Plastic pervades every part of the world’s oceans, from coastlines to seafloors, and by 2050 it’s estimated that all the plastic in the oceans will outweigh all the fish.
And cleaning the oceans is just one half of the solution. The other half is radically cutting down on how much plastic is being produced to begin with.
At least 8 million metric tons of plastic enter the oceans each year. That’s similar to emptying a garbage truck of plastic into an ocean every minute. If current trends continue, 12 billion metric tons of plastic waste will exist in the world by 2050.
That’s 1.6 metric tons, or the size of midsize car, for every human on the planet.
The good news is that the tide may be turning against plastic. All around the world, countries are beginning to ban plastic, recognizing that the convenience it affords is rarely worth the environmental harm it causes.
Campaigners around the world are targeting specific products such as straws, and individuals are vowing to adopt more reusable habits.
Taken together, these efforts could keep the oceans from being choked with plastic.
But only if they’re carried out.