Skip to content

Plastic islands in the oceans are real- here’s what you should know

    Plastic islands in the oceans is a pretty shocking concept, but also a very real one. In this article I will tell you all about these islands made up of plastic and the important facts that you should know on this topic. Ready to learn more? Read on…

    Plastic islands in the oceans

    Plastic islands in the oceans are real- here’s what you should know
    Forbes

    Yes, you read that right – plastic islands. Literally, floating islands made up purely of plastic, thanks to the severe (and rising) levels of plastic debris ending up in our rivers, seas and oceans every single year. Here is everything you need to know about these tragic plastic islands in the oceans!

    There are five main plastic islands

    Although smaller ones do exist in some places, there are five major plastic islands in the oceans right now. They don’t show up on a map, but they are there – sometimes referred to as the five continents of shame. This is where they are located:

    • North Pacific
    • South Pacific
    • North Atlantic
    • South Atlantic
    • Indian Ocean

    They coincide with the main ocean vortices.

    The first plastic island wasn’t discovered until 1997

    1997 wasn’t all that long ago – less than 30 years, in fact. This is when the first of these plastic islands in the oceans was discovered; it was the patch located in the North Pacific, and it was found by oceanographer Charles Moore. It is the most well known of the five, nicknamed the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. It covers an estimated area of 1.6 million km squared – twice the size of the state of Texas, and triple the size of France. Measuring it required one of the most elaborate sampling methods scientists have ever coordinated. 

    The Great Pacific Garbage Patch weighs more than 500 jumbo jets

    Plastic islands in the oceans are real- here’s what you should know
    Snopes

    The GPGP is estimated to contain 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic weighing around 80,000 tonnes. This is the equivalent of over 500 jumbo jets, which hopefully gives you an insight into the sheer weight of these huge islands of plastic rubbish. It is most dense in its very centre, with its edges being much less dense. The number of pieces of plastics in this particular island amounts to 250 per person on the entire planet.

    This is the biggest and most well known of the plastic islands in the oceans, and as such most of the information available points to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. However, we can take this information and apply it to the other four plastic islands in the ocean as they are all fairly similar!

    Most of the debris is below the surface

    Obviously these plastic islands have a massive surface area – but that’s not the only (or biggest!) issue. They go really deep below the surface, deeper than we can imagine, which combined with the large surface area makes for a lot of plastic. This is why it’s not easy to get rid of these plastic islands; a lot of the debris is so far below the surface that we are literally unable to access it and remove it from the ocean. And even if we did, where would it go? The only real way to prevent these plastic islands in the oceans from forming is to reduce the need and demand for plastic in the first place, or ensure it is correctly and safely recycled.

    They are created by gyres

    Plastic islands in the oceans exist because of ocean gyres. National Geographic describes these as ‘a large system of circular ocean currents formed by global wind patterns and forces created by Earth’s rotation. The movement of the world’s major ocean gyres helps drive the “ocean conveyor belt.”

    The ocean conveyor belt circulates ocean water around the entire planet. Also known as thermohaline circulation, the ocean conveyor belt is essential for regulating temperature, salinity and nutrient flow throughout the ocean.’

    They act as big whirlpools, pulling in plastic debris and waste, leading to big clumps of plastic which form these islands. For example, the California current, Kuroshiro current, North Equatorial current, and the North Pacific current make up the gyre which leads to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

    Plastic islands grow constantly 

    These five plastic islands, and the smaller ‘unofficial’ ones, are constantly growing as more and more plastic gets caught up in them. Because gyres are constantly moving, rubbish is constantly being pulled in. You can even see in real time how the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is growing every single second, thanks to a counter on The World Counts.

    It is estimated that there are 6 kilos of plastic in the oceans for every kilo of plankton – to give you an insight into how much plastic there actually is out there. And it doesn’t break down and disappear, which is why so much of it gets swept up into these plastic islands.

    They are a threat to marine life

    Plastic islands in the oceans are real- here’s what you should know

    As with all plastic pollution, these plastic islands in the oceans are a major threat to sea creatures and marine life of all kinds. When debris becomes dislodged from the ‘islands’, it becomes an issue – animals can get tangled up in plastic, which in itself can cause injuries or even choke them to death.

    It also means, when they’re stuck, they are unable to defend themselves from predators or find food for themselves, meaning they are at risk of either being eaten or starving to death. This is a major driving force behind the bans on certain plastic products, like can rings and straws, and is widely publicised. 

    And marine animals might also eat the debris from plastic islands in the oceans. This can poison them, and it can also fill their stomachs leaving them unable to eat and digest actual food – another way in which they can starve to death.

    The debris can wash up in the most remote places

    Plastic islands in the oceans are impacted by the currents around them, who deliver plastic to the island but also take it away in a never ending cycle. This plastic can wash up in the most remote places, such as Pihemanu – an atoll between Asia and North America which is about as far away as any land as it is possible to be. It is mostly home to birds and albatross. 

    According to The World Counts, ‘a documentary was released showing thousands of dead baby albatross… their stomachs filled with all kinds of colourful plastic. Beautiful and deadly to these beings who don’t know any better. Even as their bodies decomposed, the plastics remained untouched.

    The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is composed of 90% plastic and the currents carry the waste to the beaches of the atoll. The albatross feed their young through regurgitation and unfortunately, what they’re feeding them is plastic. They even choose the colored ones.  It is estimated that an adult albatross feeds their babies 5 tons of plastic a year.’

    This shows the far-reaching impact of these plastic islands in the ocean, and the effect of plastic pollution in general.

    The plastic comes from various sources

    Plastic islands in the oceans are real- here’s what you should know
    Allianzgi

    The majority of the waste which makes up plastic islands in the oceans comes from land; water bottles, plastic bags, medical equipment, and more are often not properly recycled, which leads to them being disposed of in other ways. Whether it’s accidentally or on purpose, a lot of it tragically ends up in our oceans which is what goes on to cause plastic islands.

    Other debris in the ocean comes from cargo ships; computers, clothing, toys, storage boxes and so much more are either dumped in the ocean or fall off the ship at some point. Fishing gear is a huge source of plastic pollution in the ocean; necessary for catching fish, of course, it also is so easy for it to fall off the side of a boat or get caught on something. It then gets left in the sea, making its way to plastic islands in the oceans thanks to wind, currents, and more.

    Eradicate Plastic says ‘When fishing gear becomes abandoned or lost, it becomes known as ‘ghost gear’. According to a recent study, 46% of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is made up of fishing nets. Laurent Lebreton, the lead author of the study, explained to National Geographic:

    “I knew there would be a lot of fishing gear, but 46 per cent was unexpectedly high. Initially, we thought fishing gear would be more in the 20 per cent range. That is the accepted number [for marine debris] globally—20 per cent from fishing sources and 80 per cent from land.”

    One of the problems with ghost gear is that it can continue to catch marine animals long after being abandoned. When a piece of ghost gear captures an animal, it is known as a ‘ghost catch’.

    Marine life that is unfortunate enough to enter the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, such as fish, sea turtles and dolphins, are at serious risk of becoming ensnared by a piece of ghost gear.’

    Plastic islands in the ocean change in shape and location

    Because of the nature of the vortexes and currents that cause plastic islands in the oceans, they are not these static patches that stay in one place and don’t change formation at all. They regularly move, even just a tiny bit, and will change shape due to the nature of plastic joining the island and then dislodging. In this way, plastic islands in the ocean are almost a fluid entity. Researchers can now actually predict where the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in particular is going to be and the ways in which it will move throughout the year.

    No nation takes responsibility

    Due to the nature of plastic islands in the oceans – being that they are so far away from land – they don’t fall under any country’s jurisdiction. Although the debris obviously comes from somewhere, there is no way of knowing exactly where each bit of plastic has originated from.

    This means nobody has taken responsibility for plastic islands, which in turn means nobody has taken responsibility for trying to clean them up. Oceanographer Charles Moore, who discovered the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, famously said that any country who did try to take responsibility for cleaning up this particular patch would likely go bankrupt, such is the scale of the job at hand.

    And cleaning up plastic islands in the oceans would be a near impossible task, too. Facts.net says ‘because microplastics can be as small as tiny sea animals, nets designed to scoop them up would end up catching the poor creatures as well.

    The size of the oceans is another thing to consider as it makes this job too time-consuming. As per the estimate from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Marine Debris Program, it would take 67 ships a year to clean up <1% of the North Pacific Ocean.’

    Plastic islands in the ocean don’t show up in satellite imagery 

    The majority of these plastic islands are not actually visible to the naked eye – the large bits of plastic are, of course, but plastic islands in the oceans are mostly made up of microplastics. This is why they are also referred to as patches, rather than islands, as it’s not like you would be able to stand on them – they aren’t dense enough, for the most part. For this reason, you generally can’t see plastic islands in satellite imagery; they simply make the water look a lot more murky in these places.

    Plastic islands have an impact on human health

    Plastic islands in the oceans are real- here’s what you should know

    Plastic pollution in the ocean, much of which will be part of a plastic island at some point, poses a direct threat to human health too. When sea creatures ingest plastic, and then go on to be caught and dished up as a seafood, they are passing this plastic along to us.

    For example, 100% of mussels tested in a study were found to contain microplastics – but we still eat them. Seafood is a delicacy in many places around the world, particularly in coastal areas and for island nations, but sadly a lot of it contains microplastics. At this point, too, we don’t know what the long term impact of this is on the human body.

    On the topic of seafood, we will also likely see a decline in the amount of available fish and other sea creatures for human consumption. As pollution and the number of plastic islands in the oceans gets worse, fish will become a much more scarce resource. This has the knock on effect of impacting the income of fishermen, restaurant owners and so on.

    Plastic islands in the oceans- To conclude

    If you found this blog post about plastic islands in the oceans interesting, you might enjoy the following articles…