The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, also described as the Pacific Trash Vortex, is a gyre of marine litter in the central North Pacific Ocean. More of a ‘plastic soup’ than a tangible mass the gyre stretches from the coastlines of California to the shores of Japan and extends over an area twice the size of the United States.
Much of this marine debris is made up of small pieces of plastic, broken down by the ocean’s currents – these small pieces of plastic are known as ‘nurdles’. Nurdles are around 4mm in diameter and represent an estimated 10% of all marine litter worldwide, their small size means they aren’t picked up by waste systems or beach cleaning tractors and being buoyant they float on the sea’s surface taking over a thousand years to biodegrade.
Not only are these nurdles littering almost every shoreline in the world but they also act as a sponge for harmful chemicals such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in concentrations up to a million times greater than the surrounding seawater. Resembling fish eggs they enter the food chain raising the toxicity of our fish and slowing but surely causing hormonal changes in humans as a result.
As our society’s consumption grows, the concentration of this plastic soup is increasing and with it the urgency to address this issue. Sea plastic is not a problem that is confined to far off shores but is one that is very much present in the UK. A high concentration of plastic debris can be found across our shores, with Porthtowan in Cornwall being identified as the most polluted beach in our country for micro plastic.