The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is an huge floating patch of plastic and other human-made marine debris that spans several million square kilometers of the North Pacific. It is estimated to be somewhat larger than the U.S. state of Texas.
The Garbage Patch is located roughly between 135° to 155°W and 35° to 42°N, in the North Pacific Oceanic Gyre. The Gyre maintains the existence of the Patch by trapping the debris within the surrounding currents.
The patch has formed gradually over several decades as a result of waste entering coastal waterways and being drawn out by oceanic currents, and to a much lesser extent as pollution from ocean shipping. There, it breaks down into smaller particles within a few years as it is exposed to the sun (a process known as photodegradation); however, it does not biodegrade in this time. This results in the formation of small pieces of plastic known as 'mermaid's tears', which concentrate in the upper water column and are small enough to be ingested by marine wildlife.
Mermaids tears and other marine debris are frequently consumed by organisms in the lower part of the oceanic food chain. They are also sometimes fed by various bird species to their young, usually resulting in the death of the animal. A growing number of marine wildlife are affected, with researchers finding marine debris in the digestive tracts of up to one third of the animals examined via necropsy.
Plastics are among the most indestructable inorganic materials created by humans. Some plastics may persist in the environment for hundreds of thousands of years; as the Garbage Patch is largely composed of plastic materials, it may outlast every other trace of human civilization in the event of our extinction or disappearance from the planet. Because of the slow biodegradation of plastics into simpler compounds, the effects on the marine ecosystem are likely to continue for some time.
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