Plastic island: what it is, and why it's a problem

If you’ve been following the news lately, there’s a good chance you’ve seen a string of rather depressing climate-related stories. 


To summarize, wildfires are ripping across the West Coast, the state of Texas froze earlier this year, and the Gulf of Mexico caught on fire (1). 


Oh yeah, and there’s also an island of trash floating between California and Hawaii. 


While all of those stories deserve articles of their own, today we’re going to take a look at the infamous “Plastic Island”. Hopefully, by learning more about it, we can come together to try and figure out how to clean it up. 

What on Earth is Plastic Island? 

The Great Pacific garbage patch, also known as Plastic Island, is as insidious as its name sounds. It’s a massive collection of trash floating in the Pacific Ocean. 


While parts of the patch actually resemble an island (there are even videos of people walking on floating mountains of trash), much of the buildup has a low density. That makes the island difficult for environmental groups and even nearby swimmers to detect. 


On top of that, a lot of the plastic has broken down with age. Although you can find floating cellphones, toothbrushes, and water bottles in the area, much of the trash collected by environmental groups is the size of a fingernail. 

How big is the island?

Despite being low density, the island is nevertheless enormous. According to the Ocean Cleanup Project, the patch covers around 1.6 million square kilometers, which is twice the size of Texas and three times the size of France (2).


This mass of garbage is also growing bigger. Although some pieces of trash have been there for more than 50 years, millions of tons more get added each year. 


The worst thing is that the Great Pacific garbage patch isn’t the only plastic island. There’s one in the North Atlantic, the South Atlantic, and the Indian Ocean. 

The Environmental Impact 

As you can imagine, the environmental impact of these plastic islands is devastating. 


The United Nations Ocean Conference estimates that by 2050, the oceans will have more pieces of plastic in them than fish (3). Far from just being an eyesore, these mountains of trash harm everything that comes into contact with them.


Birds, fish, and whales are some of the many animals that can consume plastic on accident. If they consume too much, it can lead to gastric impaction and death.


All this trash can also impact human health. When crustaceans and shellfish consume plastic and end up on our plates, we ingest the tiny particles inside of them. This can lead to reproductive issues, cancer, and many other issues (4).

The uncleanable mess

Although environmental groups are working hard to raise awareness about Plastic Island, cleaning the mess up is almost impossible.


For one thing, the present garbage patch is so massive it would take 67 ships more than a year to clean up less than 1% of the mess (5). All of that effort would also come from private groups, as Plastic Island is in international waters, and countries therefore don’t want to claim responsibility for it.


There’s also the question of what to do with the plastic and debris after environmental groups scoop it up. We can’t just make it disappear, and if we’re not careful, it could end up harming the environment in another way.

Where we go from here

Small-scale organization is a powerful thing, and it’s clear that any meaningful change needs to come from the top. Individuals and groups need to use their voices to demand better from governments and businesses. 


As a consumer, you have the power to buy from businesses that are committed to sustainability. Be an informed buyer, and make sure the products you buy don’t one day end up floating in the ocean. 

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