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.