The Pacific's Floating "Plastic Continents" Will Soon Wash Up On Our Shorelines

It's coming back... tigristiara/Shutterstock

Homo sapiens is the world’s strangest species. Although it’s capable of some truly wonderful things, it’s also great at tearing the planet apart. A perfect example of the latter would be the truly gargantuan masses of plastic floating around in the world’s oceans. One, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, could be up to twice the size of the continental United States.

This floating wasteland, which will take around 450 years to degrade, was long thought to be a mass that would stay in the oceans, slowly accumulating human trash and increasing in size and density. A new study in the journal Geophysical Research Letters reveals that these patches have a so-called “exit door,” and that currents will slowly move these “plastic continents” towards the western coastlines of South America.

Using cutting-edge computer simulations based on high-resolution ocean current data, the team produced virtual models of the enormous plastic continents in the Pacific Ocean. The trajectories of millions of particles of plastic were calculated, and it revealed that currents, many hundreds of kilometers wide, were removing plastic from the hearts of the vortexes and propelling it eastwards instead.

Ultimately, the trash will collide with the coasts of Chile and Peru. This could mean that a large chunk of the 12.7 billion kilograms (28 billion pounds) of plastic that we dump into the oceans every single year could start piling up on our shores.

“The contamination of the marine environment by plastic litter appears as a growing and global problem, with all ocean basins being now contaminated,” the authors, led by Christophe Maes of the France-based National Center for Scientific Research, write in their study.

Discovering these exit doors is a welcome addition to our oceanographic knowledge, but as the researchers point out, “more modelling, more observations of currents… are required to understand better the ocean surface currents and, eventually, to develop marine debris collection strategies at the scale of these [plastic] convergence zones.”

Due to a combination of winds and the Coriolis Effect (the “force” that oceanic and atmospheric currents experience due to the Earth’s rotation), massive vortexes exist in the North and South Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, and across the entire Indian Ocean. Thanks to these vortexes, our plastic – a buoyant, poorly degradable material – gets stuck at these five spots, and for long periods of time remain there, out of sight and out of mind.

This research indicates that these vortexes are hiding currents that are beginning to send our own rubbish back to us. Clearly, he take-home message from this study is that we must act now to stop producing so much plastic.

As useful as it is, most of it is currently biodegradable on a timeline of decades to centuries. This is bad news for the environment. As a marker of how quickly we are destroying the environment, geologists have confirmed that a new “rock” type made of sediments and plastic – so-called “plastiglomerates” – now exists.

Even if the current plastic continents are left unseen by most, their effects on our health are becoming increasingly clear. Fish are starting to eat some of this plastic and we, of course, eat these fish. This means we’re eating plastic.

They that sow the wind shall reap the whirlwind.

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