Huge, floating garbage island has created new ecosystem

21 April, 2023

A massive accumulation of garbage is floating around in the Pacific Ocean and has become a home for species such as anemones and crabs. A new floating ecosystem has emerged, according to researchers.

The “garbage island”, which measures over 1.6 million square kilometers – roughly three times the area of Sweden – drifts around in the ocean between California and Hawaii. It’s not a compact island but the world’s largest collection of garbage, loosely held together by a huge eddy current that pulls trash toward the center.

Far out at sea, a number of species whose habitat is normally close to coasts have managed to survive and reproduce, according to a study that has been published in Nature Ecology and Evolution. The researchers retrieved 105 objects between November 2018 and January 2019 from the eastern parts of the great garbage patch, known in English as “The Great Pacific Garbage Patch”.


On the recovered objects, the researchers found 484 invertebrates of 46 different species, the vast majority of which normally live near the coast. The plastic debris has enabled new floating ecosystems with species that normally cannot survive in the open ocean but can actually survive there, according to the researchers.

– It was surprising to see how common the coastal species were. They were on 70 percent of the debris that we found, said Linsey Haram of the Smithsonian’s Environmental Research Center (SERC) in an interview with CNN.

Much of the recovered debris was severely degraded and brittle after years of wear and tear at sea. The plastic debris can survive for a long time in the ocean, while organic materials break down and sink in a few months or possibly years.

They eat each other

– On some of the objects, both coastal species and species that usually live far out to sea were found. There is probably competition for both space and food, says Linsey Haram.

– We’ve seen evidence that some coastal anemones are eating species from further out to sea, so we know that some predation is going on between the two communities, she says.

Scientists have previously warned that invasive coastal species could lead to significant changes in the marine environment.

What it will mean in the long run that new species have established themselves far out at sea is not clear, and it is difficult to determine exactly how they have gotten so far out to sea and how they have managed to survive.

The garbage area consists of an estimated 1.8 trillion plastic items, according to the non-profit environmental organization The Ocean Cleanup. It is difficult to determine the number with any accuracy; it can be anywhere from 1.1 to 3.6 trillion objects.

That equates to over 200 items for every person in the world.

The greatest concentration of litter is in the center of the area, while it becomes significantly sparser towards the edges.

Plastic in the oceans can cause malnutrition in animals that sometimes mistake the trash for food. In addition, animals can get stuck in the plastic. According to studies, 17 percent of the species affected by plastic in the ocean are listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which manages the global list of red-listed species.

Sources: The ocean cleanup, AP

Text: TT/Nyhetsbyrån
Photo: Peter Dejong/AP/TT

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