Plastic in 'Great Pacific Garbage Patch' Increases 100-Fold

A new study published in Biology Letters found that microplastic concentrations in the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre (NPSG) have seen a 100-fold increase over the past 40 years.

The Pacific Garbage Patch is a swatch of ocean, thought to be between the size of Texas and twice the size of Hawai’i, that is covered by tiny bits of plastic broken down to the size of a human fingernail or smaller. These pervasive bits of plastic are already beginning to have a huge impact on local ecosystems.

Sea skaters, an insect commonly found in this subtropical region, typically lay their eggs on bird feathers, pumice, seashells and other hard, natural surfaces. But plastic has provided these insects with a new surface for egg-laying, resulting in a notable rise in their egg density. The sea skater population boom is expected to be felt all the way up the food chain.

The study’s lead author was quoted: “The study raises an important issue, which is the addition of hard surfaces to the open ocean. In the North Pacific, for example, there’s no floating seaweed like there is in the Sargasso Sea in the North Atlantic. And we know that the animals, the plants and the microbes that live on hard surfaces are different from the ones that live floating around in the water.”

The garbage patch is affecting fish and animals farther up the food chain in other ways as well. The San Diego Scripps Institution of Oceanography research team previously found that 9 percent of the 141 varieties of fish that live within the NPSG had plastic in their stomachs. Fish at intermediate ocean depths are ingesting plastic at an estimated rate of 12,000 to 24,000 tons per year.

To learn more about the human, animal and environmental impacts of plastic (and how to help mitigate them), check out What’s the Problem with Plastic Bottles? and What’s So Bad About Plastic Bags?

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