Over the last few decades, we’ve dumped enormous amounts of trash into the oceans. Now that we’re aware of just how bad the problem is, a few people like Boyan Slat are developing ways to get at least a little bit of it out. But according to new research, those so-called “garbage patches” floating in the ocean blue are full of life, and cleaning up that trash isn’t as harmless as it sounds.
The oceans have about five major garbage patches. They’re formed when currents mix and swirl together, creating gyres, a large system of circular ocean currents formed by global wind patterns and forces created by Earth’s rotation. Trash pouring into the sea is eventually caught up in these currents and ends up swirling around in one of those gyres. Our garbage, big and small, ends up in roughly the same spots, the plastics degrading slowly, sometimes down to the micro-plastic size.
You certainly heard of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Sitting off the coast of California, halfway to Hawaii, it’s nearly 1.6 million square kilometers in size. We haven’t actually known about it for all that long — it was first noticed in 1997 — but it’s been steadily gaining more and more garbage.
Researchers wanted to see what, if any, kind of life was calling those floating dumps home, so they sailed through the Great Pacific Garbage patch for 80 days, collecting samples the whole way.
“These mysterious regions are largely unexplored,” Rebecca Helm, a biologist at Georgetown University, told Science.
What they found was a little surprising: huge numbers of three species in particular have moved into the patch, including blue button jellies, by-the-wind sailors (which recently washed up in vast numbers on California beaches), and violet snails.
Looking at the locations of where the highest concentrations of those three species were collected, the scientists found that they were in the same places as the highest concentrations of plastic debris. All three creatures are moved by the wind, currents, and tides, so it stands to reason that, as the researchers wrote, “ocean currents shepherd all of these floating objects—both life and trash—in the same way.”
It’s a little frightening, though, since every little bit and piece of creature is a part of a complex ecosystem. Sea turtles and seabirds prey on the animals found in the garbage patch, so it’s very likely that they’re accidentally ingesting trash.
“These animals don’t exist in isolation,” Helm continued. “The food web they’re a part of affects the whole ocean.”
One of the main issues critics have with clean up method’s like Boyan Slat’s Ocean Cleanup Project is the concern that trawling the surface of the ocean for trash will end up killing the animals cruising the patches for food.
Just a few months ago, almost 200 countries said they’d sign a treaty that will create protected areas in international waters. That’s long been something anyone struggled to do, since it takes international agreement. If garbage patches are serving as homes for threatened species, they could fall under that protection.
It’s a tough spot to be in, however, since it means weighing the importance of one species over another. If the plastic gyres are killing more creatures than we’d be saving by protecting those patches, should we continue attempting to clean them up?
“Plastic is an invasive species,” Charles Moore, the man who first observed the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, told Science. “Sometimes you have to kill invasive species to preserve biodiversity.”
Of course, the most effective solution would be to prevent plastic from entering the ocean in the first place, but that would require societal changes on a global scale. And if history has proven anything, it’s that societal changes on a global scale are not easy to come by.