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  • Writer's pictureEleanor Terner

Trash Islands: What They Are and Why They Matter

If you visit the beach, which is often the case for those living in La Jolla, it’s likely you will encounter some form of beach litter. This litter will eventually be carried by various ocean currents and congregate into enormous entities called “Trash Islands.” This article explains what Trash Islands are, and how they affect the climate.

Ocean currents are useful for redistributing nutrients between oceans around the world. A gyre consists of rotating ocean currents caused by wind and are responsible for this redistribution. Unfortunately, floating litter such as plastic bottles, rope, etc., are also gathered by these various gyres. The currents cause the groups of trash to stick together and can accumulate to cover ocean surfaces, in some cases, twice the size of Texas. These “Trash Islands” or “Garbage Patches” are more than 90% plastic, the largest being called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

In recent years, when one advocates for cleaning the oceans of plastic, the image of a sea turtle injured by a plastic straw or bag comes to mind. Although this is good motivation to use less plastic, especially if you’re an animal lover, lessening the rise of climate change is another benefit you should weigh. These islands are not only harmful to sea life, but also harmful to the climate.

Nearly all plastic is made from refined fossil fuels, which releases greenhouse gasses such as CO2 into the atmosphere as it degrades. These emissions aggrandize climate change. Not only does plastic release more CO2 into the atmosphere, but the toxins in plastic also interfere with the ocean’s capacity to sequester it. According to one ocean study, “Earth’s oceans have absorbed 20–40 percent of all anthropogenic carbon emitted since the dawn of the industrial era.” The study continues to explain that microscopic plants, called phytoplankton, absorb the mass quantities of carbon through photosynthesis. After being absorbed, the carbon stays in the ocean and is prevented from re-entering the atmosphere. Unfortunately, plastics and microplastics contaminate the phytoplankton. Further research suggests that this contamination affects the phytoplankton's ability to fix carbon for photosynthesis, damaging their metabolic pathways, success at reproduction, and overall survival. Without these phytoplankton, the ocean loses its main mechanism of absorbing carbon. This results in more carbon lingering in the atmosphere, accelerating global warming.

Research by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and other agencies suggests that trash islands are growing and the solution isn’t a simple clean-up. Because trash is scattered without uniform density in remote ocean regions, reaching and sifting through it to avoid sea life and dispose of plastic is difficult. The alternative and the more effective solution suggested by the agencies is to stop the growth. Tony Haymet, former director of Scripps Institute of Oceanography, suggests the main way to avoid ocean trash is by convincing people not to litter. About 80% of ocean plastics come from land, with the rest coming from marine sources such as discarded fishing nets. If we can reduce waste, and instead recycle or reuse as much as possible, we could greatly reduce plastics from land. Reducing the amount of plastic we use for production, and instead using more sustainable materials, is critical to mitigating climate change.

So what can you do to help reduce waste? If possible, make the switch to non-single-use products and say no to plastic. When walking along the beach, or along any waterway, pick up discarded plastics and recycle them if you can. Don’t only consider the suffering turtles, but also the significant climate implications caused by plastic and litter.

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