A plastic waste leviathan, bigger than Spain, France and Germany taken together, endangers life in the Pacific
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch—an 80,000 tonne flotilla of plastic jetsam drifting in the ocean—has now been estimated to be bigger than France, Germany and Spain combined. Humans have dumped enough bottles, bags, containers, fishing nets and microparticles into the ocean for the resulting waste hulk to span over 1.6 million square kilometres, researchers based in the Netherlands, whose findings were published in the journal, Scientifc Reports, say. This is 16 times the previous estimate of the area covered by the waste patch. As per the researchers mapping effort, this particular instance of plastic pollution is increasing exponentially, at a much faster beat than earlier. Marine life now faces a dual threat to life—large animals risk getting caught in the larger debris, especially fishing nets, which make up 90% of the Patch while microplastics (less than 5 mm in size) enter the food chain via fish eaten by larger predators, with toxins getting passed along the chain.
It is poor consolation, but the fact that the bulk is larger debris means it is easier to remove most of the waste from the ocean. However, there is no salvage for plastic that would have sunk to the ocean-floor from the Patch. The Patch, however, is just a symptom—albeit the most pronounced one—of the larger plastic waste problem the planet faces. Global plastic production stood at 322 million tonnes in 2015 alone, as per data from the International Organization for Standardization. While most of the waste plastic accumulates terrestrially or is burnt, passing on the pollution to air, nearly 20 million tonnes of plastic enters the oceans every year.
The most effective treaty on oceanic pollution in force, the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships, is able achieve little from an overall pollution reduction point of view, since it exempts accidental loss or disposal of plastic due to damage to the ship or its parts. The treaty also leaves the enforcement of its provisions an penalty decisions to sovereigns, making it easy to be challenged in international forums. While a comprehensive ban on plastics may not be possible, a ban on the most polluting goods made from these is necessary.