by Ewoma Okah-Avae

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is an area of marine toxic waste plastic pollution estimated to be 1.6 million square kilometers, twice the size of Texas and three times the size of France! As my writer friend put it, “it’s another continent on its own!” One wonders how there can be so much waste to constitute the size of almost a continent?  Well, what else do we expect to gain from years of accumulated plastic pollution? This is one of the consequences of inadequate solid waste management practices impacting our oceans. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, or GPGP as it is called, is situated halfway between the states of Hawaii and California in the United States. An estimated 1.15-2.41 million metric tonnes of plastic waste enters the oceans every year from rivers, streams, drainage canals and beaches, resulting in about 1.8 trillion floating plastic pieces some of which have formed the GPGP. 

But before we look at the effects of plastic pollution on our oceans, we need a quick exposé on the importance of oceans: oceans are a natural carbon sink, grabbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to use in the process of photosynthesis by plants living in the sea and acting as a major storage system for carbon dioxide. A carbon sink is any reservoir, natural or otherwise, which accumulates and stores carbon compounds for indefinite periods of time. Oceans are considered to be the main natural carbon sink apart from vegetation and forest cover on land, absorbing approximately 50% of the carbon emitted into the atmosphere. Plankton, coral reefs, algae, fish and several other photosynthetic bacteria contribute largely to this extraction of carbon, helping to lower drastically the concentration of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

We can’t overemphasize the importance of oceans especially when it comes to mitigating the effects of global warming and climate change, helping to lower or even eradicate the load of carbon emissions which human activities introduce with more ferocity each year into the environment. If these natural carbon stores or sinks are damaged by plastic pollution, there’s no doubt that the natural ability of this ecological wonder to store carbon will be hampered. If the ocean could no longer store carbon, climate change would accelerate exponentially.

The extent of plastics pollution in the GPGP is enormous. The main pollutant is called the Persistent Bio-accumulative Toxic Chemical present in plastics, otherwise known as PBT. Often plastic pollutants enter the oceans through rivers and other tributaries where over time due to ocean currents, heat, and salinity, they are broken down into microplastics in the range between 0.05-0.5cm in size. Others are meso plastics between 0.5-5cm; macro plastics between 5-50cm, and mega plastics which are 50cm and above in actual size. The majority of plastics retrieved were made up of hard plastic called polyethylene (PE) or another one called polypropylene (PP).

Derelict fishing gear which includes nets and ropes, partially ranging in size from small fragments to larger objects and meter-sized fishing nets are responsible for about 46% of the total mass of plastics waste which is constantly breaking down into smaller and smaller pieces. Abandoned fishing nets, known as ghost nets, often strangle marine animals such as fish, dolphins, and sea turtles as as they migrate through waters where they often meet a gruesome death. Studies have revealed that about 700 species have encountered marine debris and 92% of these debris are plastic wastes. These animals often mistake small microplastics for food and ingest them, ultimately dying from their inability to digest the plastic. In addition to marine health, there are myriad other health and economic implications and challenges for humans. There is no question that the amount of plastics pollutants present in the oceans poses a constant threat to aquatic and human life and the ability of the oceans to maintain equilibrium. 

If we are to survive as a species, we need to take serious steps to reduce pollution in our water ecosystems; it’s not enough to just look on and do nothing. Some companies like The Ocean Clean Up project are working hard to ameliorate plastics in our oceans, but we also need governments, corporations and stakeholders to rise up and make their voices heard in order to ensure that plastic pollution is reduced to the barest minimum until it is eventually eradicated altogether. Strict measures to effectively dispose and manage solid wastes should be put in place, especially in coastal areas surrounded by beaches. Recycling activities should be introduced into these communities if they don’t already exist, and should be strictly adhered to in order to reduce plastic waste entering our rivers and oceans. It’s time we all do our part.

Ewoma is a Geographer, Environmentalist, Blogger & Podcaster on environmental awareness, issues and concerns. She has a blog on which she writes regularly about the environment. The Green Code: Invest In The Matters Of The Environment is a newsletter she writes on a monthly basis about environmental trends.  Her podcast titled: Your Environment Matters By Ewoma Okah-Avae can be heard on Google, Spotify, Apple, Anchor, Breaker and a host of others.  For more news about the environment you can check out her blog: Follow on LinkedIn: Ewoma Okah-Avae; Twitter: @ewomao; Instagram:  ewomazi; Pinterest:  eokahavae