Pacific plastic patch grows thicker

The “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” in the Pacific Ocean was dubbed so by the amount of plastic it began accumulating about 40 years ago.

Scientists announced today in the online edition of the journal Biology Letters that the amount of plastic is the ocean has ballooned to about hundred times above levels first observed in the 1970s.

Miriam Goldstein, Ph.D graduate student at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and lead author of the study, said she is disheartened by the findings. She told the Merc she had anticipated a decrease, in part due to rising concerns over plastic pollution:

“Plastic had been detected in the open ocean in the early 1970s. People were raising the alarm then. The fact it has gotten so much worse is really disappointing.”

Parts of the North Pacific about 1,000 miles off the California coast are now polluted by billions of tiny pieces of trash that is swept out to sea and broken down by waves and wind. Researchers found little to no plastic in the same area in 1972.

Fish and sea turtles often eats these bits of trash, mistaking them for food. About one in 10 fish collected in the study had plastic in their stomachs.

The garbage patch has not necessarily grown in size, but density. The study shows 100 times more pieces per cubic meter than there was in the ’70s.

The plastic could also be affecting the food web, as researchers found a high number of “water strider” eggs entangled within the plastic.

Water striders, a type of marine insect, usually lay eggs on wood or other pieces of debris that float naturally. Laying eggs on plastic could mean a spike in the bug’s population. That could drain food away from fish and sea turtles, which share the same prey.

Goldstein said that clearing the ocean entirely of plastic is practically impossible, and that prevention is necessary to keep the plastic to a minimum.

This study is expected to prompt more bans on plastic products within many cities. Currently, 45 California cities ranging from the Bay Area to Los Angeles county have a ban on plastic bags. About 60 cities have a similar ban on polystyrene.