Pacific Garbage Patch Landfills are a common human solution for disposing of trash on land. But when trash is discarded into the ocean, where does it end up? Unfortunately, since most types of marine debris (plastics, glass, etc.) are not biodegradable, the waste ends up floating in the water. When trash is discarded into the ocean, it often becomes incorporated into physical ocean features such as currents and gyres. Human waste in the ocean is becoming a problem so large that giant, swirling vortexes of trash now exist in the Pacific Ocean. Commonly called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, this vortex of trash actually exists as two smaller patches that are called the Eastern and Western garbage patches. They exist on opposite sides of the Pacific Ocean basin. These smaller patches are connected by the Subtropical Convergence Zone (a physical feature of the ocean impacted by the atmosphere), which acts like a conveyor belt to move trash across the Pacific. No one knows exactly how large these patches are or how much trash they contain. Some heavier trash may sink in the water column, but many smaller pieces break off and float on the surface. Tiny pieces of plastic called microplastics can accumulate so much that the water may become cloudy in appearance. According to a National Geographic article, up to 1.9 million pieces of microplastics have been found to accumulate in a square mile in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is perilous to all forms of marine life, from tiny microscopic plants and algae to sea turtles and marine mammals. If the Patch becomes so abundant that sunlight is blocked at the ocean surface, phytoplankton and algal species cannot receive the sunlight they need in order to undergo photosynthesis and reproduce. If this base of the marine food web is compromised, this means there is less food available for all other species, including seafood for human populations. Many larger marine species, such as birds and sea turtles, have been found deceased with trash from the Patch in their stomach and intestinal tracts. Toxins leeched from plastic materials kill animals after they are ingested. Although the Patch is a large problem and too big for any one person to clean, you can do your part to prevent it from getting any larger. Using less plastic materials, recycling more, and being vocal if you see anyone throwing trash into the ocean are all ways that you can help the effort to reduce the Patch. If more effort is taken to reduce the amount of waste we produce, then there is hope the Great Pacific Garbage Patch will not continue to grow and plague marine life.
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