Hundreds of miles off the North American coast lies a plastic garbage patch that is estimated to be at least as big as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The floating soup of plastic covers a region somewhere between Virginia and Cuba. Although The North Atlantic Garbage Patch gets less attention than its cousin in the Pacific, it has been found to be just as toxic and just as expansive.
The Sea Education Association has led the effort to research the Atlantic Garbage Patch. More than 7,000 students have gone on research cruises, conducting more than 6,000 surface net tows from Nova Scotia to the Caribbean Islands, collecting over 64,000 pieces of plastic as samples. Through SEA, you could see the garbage patch for yourself!
Micro plastic makes up most of the debris, giving an indication of how long this has been accumulating. In some places the students found more than 520,000 bits of plastic per square mile. But that’s only a portion of the total because waves and currents often carry plastic as deep as 65 feet below the surface. After even longer periods of time, the plastic breaks down further and the almost microscopic fragments start to sink because they become heavier than water.
Only 20% of the plastic in the ocean actually floats. The rest of it is either on the bottom or on its way there.
The vast majorities of these fragments come from open landfills and ships at sea. Plastic and trash from coastal cities and even hundreds of miles inland also contribute to the plastic in the ocean. If somebody driving around in the Catskill Mountains throws an empty water bottle out their window and it lands in a ditch, a rainstorm could wash it into a nearby stream. The stream would most probably feed into the Hudson River, eventually reaching the Atlantic Ocean. Plastic never biodegrades or disappears. It only breaks into smaller and smaller pieces. Every piece of plastic ever made is still on this planet. We don’t even know how many tons of plastic are floating in our oceans right now.
Marine debris poses significant threats to marine life, such as:
- Whales, seals, dolphins and other marine mammals become entangled in large debris
- Fish, turtles, seabirds, and other aquatic life accidentally eat smaller plastic particles and can’t digest them or are poisoned
- Plankton and other tiny marine organisms are transported along with the floating plastic to regions where they may be invasive
- When the plastic photo-degrades, it releases harmful chemical compounds into the water, poisoning the microscopic life that is at the base of the food chain.
Some of this plastic has been floating around for over 50 years and is so tiny that would be very difficult, very expensive and quite possibly impossible to clean it up. Also consider that only some of the plastic has accumulated at the Atlantic Garbage Patch, and that there probably isn’t a square mile of ocean on the entire planet that doesn’t have plastic in it.
What can we do about it? Nobody has quite figured that out yet, but they have been doing plenty of research and hopefully they’ll get back to us.
There is one thing we can do right now. We can keep it from getting bigger.
Go to our Take Action page and pick something to take action on. When you get comfortable with that and want to do more, do something else. Throughout this website there are so many ways you can get involved that you won’t live long enough to do them all. You will meet plenty of interesting and cool people along the way and you will be doing something good for the earth, not to mention all the animals on it, including the people.