Plastic trash takes up so much territory in Earth’s oceans that is has been designated a “country” by the United Nations. The new “country” is called Garbage Patch. And, no, this is not a satirical story from The Onion.
According to UNESCO, the Garbage Patch to be symbolically recognized as a federal state rises in the middle of the oceans:
It is a territory that comprises five areas of man-made rubbish scattered in the North Pacific, South Pacific, North Atlantic, South Atlantic and Indian Ocean. Land-based sources – such as agricultural run-off, discharge of nutrients and pesticides and untreated sewage including plastics – account for approximately 80% of marine pollution, globally. Marine habitats worldwide are contaminated with man-made debris.
The Garbage Patch will be recognized as a federal state with a “population” of 36,939 tons of garbage, and covering 15,915,933 square meters, an area roughly twice the size of the United States. The largest of the trash “islands”—is known variously as The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the Eastern Pacific Garbage Patch and the Pacific Trash Vortex. It’s located between Hawaii and California, in a region called the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre.
National Geographic describes an ocean gyre as:
…A circular ocean current formed by the Earth’s wind patterns and the forces created by the rotation of the planet. The area in the center of a gyre tends to be very calm and stable. The circular motion of the gyre draws in debris. Debris eventually makes its way into the center of the gyre, where it becomes trapped and builds up. A similar garbage patch exists in the Atlantic Ocean, in the North Atlantic Gyre.
The motion of the gyre prevents garbage and other materials from escaping. The amount of material in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch accumulates because much of it is not biodegradable. Many plastics, for instance, do not wear down; they simply break into tinier and tinier pieces.
According to How Stuff Works, 10 percent of the ocean’s plastic is made up of something called “nurdles.” And what’s that, you may ask? A nurdle is a small piece of plastic formed by photodegradation. Plastic doesn’t chemically change as it decays — it breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces over time. Nurdles act like sponges in the ocean and absorb toxins. The toxins are concentrated in the nurdle and can be detrimental to marine life.
Tidbit: The first of the Garbage Patches was discovered in 1989 by a racing boat captain, Charles Moore. Moore was sailing from Hawaii to California after competing in a yachting race. Crossing the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, Moore and his crew noticed millions of pieces of plastic surrounding his ship.
Although they’re often referred to as “islands,” that’s a misnomer, according to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration [NOAA]:
There is no island of trash forming in the middle of the ocean, nor a blanket of trash that can be seen with satellite or aerial photographs. This is likely because much of the debris is small bits of floating plastic not easily seen from a boat.
To learn more about the Garbage Patch, check out this helpful quiz, at How Stuff Works.