The way currents work in the oceans they have collected plastic waste that has ended up in the ocean into large plastic islands that circulate in particular areas. The great pacific garbage patch, located between California and Hawaii, is the largest collection of ocean plastic in the world at 1.6 million cubic kilometers.
While it gets called an island, it doesn’t look like an island. It’s not like there are huge pieces of plastic floating together. Much of the plastic is small, including significant microplastics. So, the island is quite low density but it is having significant impacts. One of these impacts is providing a home for coastal invertebrate species.
Different types of organisms live in different habitats. This applies to the ocean. Normally there are different species on the coast compared to in the open ocean. However, the plastic floating garbage is creating habitat for coastal species in the open ocean (Harem and colleagues, 2023).
This has lots of potential implications. The coastal species make up more of the local community than the open ocean species. This means that the open ocean species may be being displaced by the coastal species. This could impact the food chain and health of other larger species.
Another potential risk is that as garbage separates off the patch and gets washed up on land it can increase the risks of invasive species. For places like Hawaii this is particularly concerning because the island ecosystems are often more vulnerable to changes and damage from invasive species.
The takeaway for me from this article is that I think it is easy to think about the garbage patch as relatively benign. Sure some of the plastic is ingested and moves up the food chain. But our own daily experience with plastic waste often doesn’t trigger huge concern. But this research illustrates that it isn’t just the damage of the plastic itself, but also from changes like invasive species that we need to be concerned about.
What are your best strategies for reducing plastic waste?
We really struggle w plastic waste. So many things in the grocery store are already in plastic bags or packaging of one type or another. Even if we buy as much as possible from bulk. Now that the pandemic is over also reducing carry out. Still a massive struggle.