It’s no surprise that plastic pollution is a reality. As more and more information is expected to pour in about this ever-growing crisis, all roads seem to lead to the usage of disposable single-use plastics. It was reported that in 2016, people had consumed 400 billion plastic water bottles worldwide – that’s equivalent to 1 million plastic water bottles per minute, or 20,000 bottles per second. And guess how much plastic is “recycled,” and how much is sent to landfills:
- 91% of plastic ends up in either landfills or in the ocean
- Only 9% of plastic are actually recycled
Plastic is bad for the environment, because it can take over 400 years for plastic water bottles to biodegrade. In fact, microplastics (or, tiny plastic particles) breakdown and embed themselves in our food chain, as they’re eaten by larger (and endangered) marine ecosystems – and when we consume marine life, those particles will affect our health as well. Despite their overall convenience – especially in rural areas – plastic bottles gone unchecked by government has led to the proliferation of plastic disposables, thus making it a multimillion-dollar business for many companies in the last 6 decades. This overconsumption of plastic has led to the following:
- Excessive waste from littering,
- Poor recycling programs, AND
- Landfill spillover (which contributes to climate change)
With alarming new statistics coming in every day, we’ll spotlight the issue with a comprehensive overview about the environmental impact of plastic water bottles, and what we can do to reduce the amount of plastic that sneaks into the environment.
“The Great Pacific Garbage Patch – or GPGP – is, by far, the largest accumulation of ocean plastic in the world, located between Hawaii and California,” says Jaclyn Cho, an ecology writer at Writinity and Last minute writing. “This has been a crisis that has caught the attention of many scientists and environmentalists, including The Ocean Cleanup initiative, which has conducted the most extensive analysis in this area.”
As we venture further on this topic, we will show you The Ocean Cleanup’s findings on the matter.
Annually, 1.15 to 2.41 million tons of plastic are entering the ocean from rivers. More egregiously, more than half of this plastic won’t sink once it encounters the sea. As they remain on the ocean’s surface, and enter the gyre, they won’t leave the area until they eventually degrade into smaller microplastics under the effects of sun, waves, and marine life. As a result, the GPGP will only increase in size – a surface area of around 1.6 million square kilometers (twice the size of Texas, or three times that of France).
The size measurement was the direct result of having a fleet of 30 boats, 652 surface nets, and two flights over the patch as a way to gather aerial imagery of the debris. Sampling at different locations within the same time period allowed a more accurate estimate of the patch size, as well as the plastic drifting in it.
The measurement also takes into account the location of the GPGP (constantly evolving). By simulating concentration levels in the North Pacific, researchers could follow the location of the patch, demonstrating significant seasonal and interannual variations. The patch, on average, orbits around 32°N and 145°W. However, there was a seasonal shift from west to east, and substantial variations in latitude (North to South), which depended on the year.
HOW MUCH PLASTIC FLOATS IN THE GPGP?
The water bottle industry is a booming business, with over 1,500 plastic water bottles being used every second in the United States alone, making the country the biggest bottled water market in the world, thanks to commercial tactics from the following companies:
- Coca Cola
- Pepsi, AND
However, this multimillion-dollar industry is selling out at the expense of the environment. At the time of sampling, there were more than 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic in the GPGP that weigh an estimated 80,000 tons, which is greater than previous calculations.
Total Mass & Count
The mass of the plastic in the GPGP was estimated to be approximately 80,000 tons (4 to 16 times more than previous calculations) – that’s like measuring 500 Jumbo Jets together. The center of the patch has the highest density, while the further boundaries are the least dense. If the less-dense outer region is considered in the total estimate, the total mass would be closer to 100,000 tons. As for the plastic itself, 1.8 trillion total plastic pieces were floating in the patch – that’s equivalent to 250 pieces of debris for every human in the world.
As for the concentration from the GPGP, the center concentration levels contain the highest density, reaching 100s of kg/km² while decreasing to 10 kg/km² in the outermost region, thus proving that plastic pollution at sea is scattered – and NOT forming a solid mass – thus disproving the “trash island” myth.
Next, vertical distribution was measured during six expeditions conducted between 2013 to 2015. As a result, it was determined that the buoyant plastic mass is distributed within the top few meters of the ocean through the following factors:
- Wind speed
- Sea state, AND
- Plastic buoyancy
While buoyant plastic would eventually float back to the surface in calmer seas, larger pieces will resurface more rapidly than smaller pieces.
It’s important to note that The Ocean Cleanup initiative has conducted their research since the 1970s, showing that overtime plastic has the capacity to persist in the GPGP, and that microplastic mass concentration is increasing exponentially, thus proving that the input of plastic in the patch is greater than the output, and will continue to rise.
TYPES OF PLASTIC FLOATING IN THE GPGP
Much of the plastic retrieved were made of rigid or hard polyethylene (PE) or polypropylene (PP). Others were from derelict fishing gear (i.e. nets and ropes) – big or small.
Plastic within the patch was categorized into four different size classes:
- Microplastics (0.05 – 0.5 cm)
- Mesoplastics (0.5 – 5 cm)
- Macroplastics (5 – 50 cm)
- Megaplastics (50 cm+)
The total mass – 92% of the debris – found in the patch consists of objects larger than 0.5 cm, while three-quarters of the total mass is made of macro- and mega plastic. However, for object count, 94% of the total is microplastics.
The collected plastics were classified into four different types:
- Type H: Hard plastic, plastic sheet or film;
- Type N: Plastic lines, ropes, and fishing nets;
- Type P: Pre-production plastics (cylinders, spheres or disks); AND
- Type F: Fragments made of foamed materials
Screenings for clues on age and origin were done by examining each object for the following:
- Trademarks, AND
- “Made in” statements
Large Debris Matters
Since plastic will eventually deteriorate into microplastics (as a result of sun exposure, waves, marine life, and temperature changes), scientists are focusing more on plastic in their larger stage. If a large piece of plastic becomes small, then the microplastics that take its place later on will be very difficult to remove, and will often be mistaken for food by marine animals.
EFFECTS ON MARINE LIFE AND HUMANS
The plastic pollution from the GPGP affects the health of both marine life and humans in the following ways:
- How Wildlife Is Affected
Plastic tends to have sizes and colors that have animals confuse them for food. When ingested, the affected animal will grow malnourished. Or, if entangled in plastic, marine life can be strangled to death. So, it’s not surprising that over 700 species have encountered marine debris, and 92% of such interactions are with plastic, with 17% of the affected species are on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. Plus, discarded nets (or “ghost nets”) can pop up out of nowhere and entangle creatures.
- How Humans And Society Are Affected
When plastic enters the marine food web, contamination in seafood may occur. Chances are, the fish that you eat had originally swallowed and ingested a certain amount of plastic in the ocean. And, if fish are deemed unsafe due to plastic contamination, then that can hurt industries such as:
- Seafood restaurants, AND
Ultimately, governmental cleanup and eradication of ocean plastic can cost countries millions.
HOW THE OCEAN CLEANUP CONDUCT ITS RESEARCH
“The Ocean Cleanup had made it its one mission – or, so to speak, several research missions – to travel across and above the GPGP to compile an unprecedented amount of data,” says Reggie Paige, a green living blogger at Draft beyond and Research papers UK. “These missions were executed as a way to better understand the plastic that persists in the region, and what the patch is doing to affect the environment.”
List Of Research Expeditions
Since their inquiries started in the 1970’s, scientists have done more than collecting small samples from the GPGP. In fact, they’ve gone as far as getting the entire scope of the GPGP.
Over the course of 3 years, researchers at The Ocean Cleanup went on several data collection missions to learn more about the GPGP. Such missions include:
- Multi-Level-Trawl Expedition (2015)
- The Ocean Cleanup analyzed the depth at which buoyant plastic debris may be vertically distributed.
- This was when the initiative had designed a new research tool – the multi-level-trawl – which allowed measurements of 11 water layers to simultaneously go as far down as 5 meters below surface level – vertical distribution.
- This new method allowed the team to study further down into the water and understand to which depths buoyant plastic may be distributed.
- Mega Expedition (2015)
- In 2015, 30 vessels and 652 surface nets (in parallels) crossed the GPGP.
- Of those ships, many carried behind them a Manta-trawl; including one mothership – the 171ft-long Ocean Starr – which carried two 6-meter-wide trawls and a survey balloon.
- The fleet returned with over 1.2 million plastic samples that showed how serious the problem was. Scientists, in turn, suggested that alarming amounts of plastic floated in the patch, and that more larger objects are expected to be found.
- Aerial Expedition (2016)
- This expedition was to learn more about these large plastic pieces (Megaplastics) that were difficult to find.
- Using a C-130 Hercules aircraft, The Ocean Cleanup surveyed 311 km² with special sensors and an RGB camera (CS-4800i) that captured one photo every second of being in the air.
- Two flights later, the team came back with over 7,000 single frame mosaics from the expedition.
Ocean Research Lab
The Ocean Cleanup then brought the plastic back to the Netherlands, where they were counted, classified, and analyzed. Here’s how it commenced:
- Counting and Classifying
- The plastic was quantified into data.
- Every piece of recovered plastic was cleaned, counted, and classified by size and type.
- In total, 1.2 million plastic samples were accounted for, and used to further study the physical properties and toxicity of the plastic from the GPGP.
- Understanding Physical Properties
- How the plastic interacts in the water also helps the team learn more about the buoyancy and depths of the plastic.
- Various experiments were done on the plastic in various environments that replicated oceanic conditions and salinity.
- Laboratory tests measured the vertical speed of the plastic as it resurfaces.
- Understanding Toxicity
- Harmful Persistent Bio-accumulative Toxic) (or PBT) chemicals are found in ocean plastics.
- The Ocean Cleanup tested plastic samples from the expeditions for their chemical levels, including any signs of PBT.
- The results showed what chemicals are present in the GPGP, and what that means for animals feeding there. And, through a process called Chromatography, researchers found that 84% of GPGP plastics contained at least one type of PBT chemical.
- Ocean Plastic Data Science
- Numerous computational and mathematical processes and methods were used throughout this study
- The team was able to visualize and characterize many features of the GPGP and its plastic.
- Turning Ocean Plastic into Data
- By turning GPGP plastic into readable data, the team was able to identify the exact location where the plastic was retrieved. Location and duration of all tows were confirmed during a post-processing phase by inspecting all the recorded datasheets against GPS trackers from all participating vessels.
- Process Aerial Expedition Data
- The C-130 Hercules aircraft was used for the Aerial Expedition. The aircraft had three types of sensors: Lidar (an advanced active sensor that’s similar to that used on Google’s autonomous cars), SWIR imager (an infrared camera to detect ocean plastic), and an RGB camera.
- Consisting of 3 sensor technicians, 7 navigation personnel, and 10 researchers, the team tracked the plastic from above, as well as monitored the equipment on board.
- The data was then analyzed and processed, resulting in multispectral and geo-referenced imagery used to screen the surface area for plastic. The analysis was conducted by both trained observers and a machine-learning algorithm, providing a fair and spatial distribution of larger debris (>0.5m).
- Key to Converting Pixels into
- The mass of the GPGP plastic debris was calculated using imagery from the Aerial Expedition. By comparing the top view surface against dry mass of multiple collected objects from the first expedition, the team could make these estimations.
- Merging Data into Comprehensive
- The gathered data and imagery were then used by our team of computational modelers to build various models and computer-generated graphics.
- The models and graphics served as a visual representation of the studies and tests conducted from the expeditions. And, they’ve helped the engineers at The Ocean Cleanup to further improve the design of a more effective cleanup system.
So, now that we know more about the plastic pollution accumulating from the GPGP, what can people do to put a stop to this crisis before it’s too late? Here’s what you can do NOW to reduce plastic pollution:
- Stop purchasing plastic bottled water. A cultural shift, as well as a change in how you consume water, can change the way plastic water bottles affect the environment.
- Instead of using a plastic bottled water, consider investing in a 100% BPA-free, stainless steel water bottles. These reusable bottles not only help you improve the health of the environment, but they’re also safer and better for your own health.
- Invest in a water filter that you can have in the refrigerator; and use the filter every morning to refill your reusable water bottles for the day.
- Raise awareness by telling your friends and family about how plastic water bottles are affecting the environment. Raising awareness can take place in your home, at school, at work, in your neighborhood, or anywhere that you have a presence with. Encourage people to make the switch to reusable stainless-steel bottles.
- Find alternatives for soap and cleaning supplies that are in environmentally-friendly packaging. Yes. Plastic water bottles aren’t the only plastic that’s affecting the environment in a negative way.
- And, whatever you do: recycle, recycle, recycle! This cannot be stressed enough. When you use a plastic bottle, make sure that you recycle it once you done with it. Plus, when you see an empty, used water bottle sitting on the street or in a park, recycle it.
While following a simple “reduce, reuse, recycle” lifestyle is beneficial for you and society, it doesn’t just mean that you’re actively saving the environment; it also means that you’re saving money using reusable bottles. Moreover, you’re free to go the extra mile to ensure that any plastic you find and use is being recycled FOR SURE. Also, be sure to do your research on what’s more beneficial for the environment, when it comes to cleaner consumable water – avoid any large organizational propaganda. Finally, don’t be afraid to spread the word on GPGP impacting the environment.
Ashley Halsey is a writer and editor at Business assignments and Gum essays. As a professional writer, she has been involved in many writing projects throughout the country. In her spare time, she enjoys reading and traveling with her two children.