Is the Great Pacific garbage patch a threat to global food security?

What is food security?
According to the UN (United Nations), the World Food Summit back in 1996 defined “food security” as the ability to produce enough food to support the global population and ensure everyone at all times, has access to affordable and nutritious food sources. Access to such foods will allow consumers to meet dietary requirements and have the ability to live a prolonged and productive life. The UN estimates, 25,000 people die from hunger or hunger-related diseases every day with 854 million around the world battling food insecurity. Hunger and/or poor nutrition are responsible for 3.1 million deaths of children annually; nearly half the global deaths of children under 5 years of age, as estimated by The World Counts. Between 1990 to 2015, people threatened by a lack of food declined by 227 million, yet from 2015 to 2018 the statistics rose again by 38 million.

What is the Great Pacific garbage patch?
The Great Pacific garbage patch also known as the “Pacific trash vortex” is located in the central North Pacific Ocean and is a primary example of the impact human activity has had on the planet. The area, twice the size of Texas or three times the size of France, is riddled with plastic bottles, fishing nets, microplastics and more. National Geographic states, “oceanographers and ecologists recently discovered that about 70% of the marine debris actually sinks to the bottom of the ocean”, suggesting that what appears on the surface (no pun intended), may just be a fraction of the true damage.

Scientists examining the waste oasis have discovered that 90% of the debris has been infested with marine bugs and crabs commonly found along coastlines. The possible transportation of species from shorelines into new territories brings the risks of more invasive species warns scientists.

The development and location:
The garbage patch is comprised of two ‘dumping grounds’, one near Japan and the other between California and Hawaii.
The two areas of debris are connected through the North Pacific subtropical Convergence Zone, a zone where warm water from the south encounters the cooler water from the artic. According to National Geographic, “the zone acts like a highway that moves debris from one patch to another.” Both dumping grounds are within the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, formed by 4 clockwise rotating currents including the California current, North Equatorial current, Kuroshio current and the North Pacific current. For context, an ocean gyre is a large system of currents swirling around. The water within the centre is still allowing debris to become confined/trapped, yet the circulating exterior draws waste in. The two characteristics together create a dangerous combination as seen with the Great Pacific garbage patch.

The connection to food insecurity:
Due to the large volume of plastic waste and fishing nets etc from the Great Pacific garbage patch, 1.6 million square kilometres (620,000 square miles) of the ocean surface has been hidden from sunlight. Fewer sunlight results in algae depletion, causing a huge disruption in the marine food chain and seafood supply.
On the contrary, too many algae can be a problem but when in balance, algae are vital to the marine ecosystem. Animals like fish depend on algae as a food source and without adequate supply, can die from hunger. In addition, algae generate oxygen for the ocean through photosynthesis; vital to marine and terrestrial life. According to research conducted at Dalhousie University, declining algae levels could disrupt the global ocean food chain. Daniel Boyce, a professor at Dalhousie University, stated “Phytoplankton [algae] is the fuel on which marine ecosystems run.”

Despite algae depletion, the plastics themselves are indirectly and directly affecting marine life by releasing dangerous chemicals into the water and/or killing animals from ingestion or entanglement. The Great Pacific garbage patch currently contains 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic; 94% of which are microplastics, nearly impossible to see. These microplastics are often consumed by fish and kill 100,000 marine animals annually. According to experts, an ocean with an unstable fish population would kill the marine ecosystem globally, making it incapable of performing essential functions and cycles. Humans would also suffer the knock-on effects. Currently, 3.2 billion people rely on fish as a food source around the world.

The components of the patch:
80% of plastics found in the ocean come from land-based sources whilst the other 20% come from boats, ships and other marine sources. A 2018 study found synthetic fishing nets made up almost 50% of the Great Pacific garbage patch from increased fishing activity within the area and ocean currents drawing them in. Microplastics are another major contributor, yet mostly in disguise. Microplastics are commonly no more than 5 millimetres long, but still large enough for marine life to see and mistakenly eat. Due to plastics’ lack of degradable characteristics, instead of dissolving, larger products like bags and bottles deteriorate into finer pieces from photodegradation. It’s estimated PET (Polyethelene terephthalate) plastic used to make bags, bottles, straws etc can take around 450 years to decompose.

Imagine you threw a plastic bottle into the bin yesterday, ultimately finding its way into the ocean. It would undoubtedly see well beyond your life, the upcoming generation and a few more. Now consider that over 5 trillion single-use plastic bottles are used annually.

Implementing solutions:
The Ocean Cleanup” is an environmental organisation aiming to rid the oceans of all harmful waste caused by human activity. The organisation uses large machinery to extract waste from the oceans and has developed catch systems to intercept waste in rivers notorious for mass pollution, stopping it all before reaching the ocean. This is one of many organisations striving to eliminate ocean pollution, with other groups like Sea Shepherd Australia not only removing waste but patrolling illegal fishing practices to restrain large corporations and safeguard marine biodiversity.
In October 2021, The Ocean Cleanup reported collecting 63,182 pounds of ocean pollution using their catch-systems from trials conducted over 12 weeks. In perspective, the Great Pacific garbage patch weighs 87,000 pounds. Despite accumulating ocean waste, The Ocean Cleanup also recycles the content into consumer products like sunglasses made from certified Great Pacific garbage patch waste.

Whilst cleaning up ocean pollution is a step forward, an even greater approach would be to eliminate plastic production entirely and divert efforts to more sustainable materials. According to the UN, “economic measure[s] to reduce plastic bags and styrofoam products keeps growing.” As more than 60 nations globally have taken steps to reduce single-use plastics through measures such as taxing or banning. In March 2019, the EU parliament voted to ban the most frequently found single-use plastic products on European beaches by 2021. Even the aviation industry such as United and Alaska Airlines have banned plastic straws on planes; now using biodegradable bamboo alternatives. American Airlines has also outlawed single-use products in lounges; eliminating straws, plastic bottles and flatware with reusable bags provided to customers.

The biodegradable plastic industry value:
In 2018, the global biodegradable plastics industry was worth $8.35 billion AUD ($6.04 billion USD) and in 2021 was worth $10.5 billion AUD ($7.6 billion USD). According to Statista, the global value of biodegradable plastics from 2021 to 2028 is set to increase by a CAGR (Compound Anual Growth Rate) of 10.7%, reaching $21.4 billion AUD ($15.5 billion USD).

Consumer options:
Today, consumers can buy numerous biodegradable plastic products. PLA (Polylactic acid) is the most commonly known biodegradable plastic and is the most widely used option in green industries. On average, PLA uses 65% less energy than petroleum plastic and generates less than 68% greenhouse gas emissions, whilst containing zero toxic substances. Biodegradable plastic options include:
– bio bin bags;
– bio straws;
– bio coffee pods;
– bio wrapping paper;
– bio clingfilm;
– bio animal waste bags;
– bio cups; and
– bio coffee cups.
All of these products can likely be found in local retail stores or supermarkets as well as online websites like Amazon and/or Walmart.

As the Great Pacific garbage patch expands, vaster amounts of ocean surface will be hidden from sunlight, further depleting algae growth and fish species. Over recent years, food insecurity has risen and between ocean pollution and over-fishing, we risk losing extensive marine species. It’s estimated the annual cost of illnesses relating to hunger/food insecurity is around $180.4 billion AUD ($130.5 billion USD). Try and imagine a world, where another 3.2 billion people are soon placed on the doorsteps of famine.

Released on the 4th of March 2022. -KJDJ
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