There’s a swirling gyre of plastic in the Pacific Ocean, and it’s getting bigger every year. Despite being called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch or the Pacific Trash Vortex, it’s not an oceanic landfill as you might expect – the patch is made up mostly of very small pieces of disposable plastic trapped by ocean gyres, and the plastic can be so small that even if you drove a boat through the very heart of this patch, you might never realize it was there.
That is what makes it so insidious. Popular imagination envisions a floating “garbage island” the size of Texas, but the reality is worse; a physical island would be easy to tackle, but the actual “patch” is a wide area with high accumulations of small pieces of plastics floating in the water. These small pieces escape the eyes of travelling humans and researchers, but marine life doesn’t miss them, accidentally swallowing them or confusing them for food. More and more plastic disposables are trapped in these gyres every year, and unless we step up to do something about this environmental disaster, it will only continue to get worse.
The Growth of Garbage Gyres: By The Numbers
A gyre is a large wind-driven surface current, affected by the Earth’s rotation to move in a circular motion. There are five main subtropical gyres – the North and South Atlantic, the North and South Pacific, and the Indian Ocean – and these large gyres can trap a lot of free-floating debris, including plastic. According to the 5 Gyres Institute, an organization dedicated to empowering “action against the global health crisis of plastic pollution” through research and education, plastic that gets trapped in these gyres takes ten years before it escapes, and even then the plastic is still in the ecosystem.
All research points to the gyres getting bigger. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is actually two subregions of accumulation: one western patch near Japan and one eastern patch between California and Hawaii. Disposable plastic is kept trapped in these “accumulation zones” by the circulation of the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, moving around an area of 20 million square kilometers. National Geographic reports that eight million tonnes of plastic still ends up in the ocean each year, and this inflow is expanding the size and depth of the gyres. 2018 research from the Dutch non-profit group The Ocean Cleanup found that the inflow of plastic still exceeds outflow, meaning the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is estimated to be between four to sixteen times bigger than it was in the 1970s – and it’s growing bigger every year. The Ocean Cleanup counted 1.8 trillion pieces plastic, many of which were larger pieces like bottles.
Will Recycling Help?
While we often turn to recycling, the truth about plastic is that it doesn’t really have much use after you’re done with it, even when you recycle. Selling recycled materials isn’t a profitable venture while we have cheap fossil fuels with which to make new products. Countries with recycling facilities then turn to selling their recycled materials to countries where these facilities don’t exist, and the plastic ends up being tossed away in the regular trash and ends up trapped in the subtropical gyres.
Even if those countries aren’t near the ocean, plastic is durable and can survive the long journey downstream. According to the 5 Gyres Institute, “plastic flows in rivers from land to sea, in the runoff from highly populated coastal cities, and from maritime activities such as fishing and shipping. Even if you live in a landlocked area, your plastic consumption is likely a contributor.” As research has shown, the accumulation zones within these gyres are only getting bigger and deeper.
Recycling should actually be the last resort – we should all be reducing. Until we can move society to mass action on plastic, this is the only way to stop the gyres from trapping more and more plastic. This means that from companies down to the individual, everyone has to take the step of reducing plastic waste in their lives. In the hospitality industry, we can help both on a company level and a personal one by reducing the plastic we encourage our visitors to use in their rooms. By replacing bottles of amenities with dispensers, we can minimize plastic waste while still offering high levels of comfort to guests. It’s up to us to make a difference, but in this day and age, innovations like Dispenser Amenities mean we don’t have to sacrifice services in the process!