Because the plastic has broken down into tiny pieces, it is virtually impossible to recover, meaning that it has essentially become a permanent part of the ecosystem. The full impact of its presence there – what happens if fish and other marine animals eat the plastic, which attracts toxins that could enter the food chain – is still unclear.
“It's a serious environmental problem from a lot of standpoints,” Dr. Law says. “There are impacts on the ecosystem from seabirds, fish, and turtles, down to microscopic plankton.”
The possible effect on humans is “a huge open question,” she adds. “If a marine organism were to ingest a contaminated plastic article, it could move up the food chain. But that is far from proven.”
The data collected by SEA, from 22 years of sailing through the North Atlantic and Caribbean, show a high concentration of plastic fragments centered about 30 degrees north latitude (in the western North Atlantic), says Law. That aligns with the ocean’s circular current pattern.
But don’t call this region the garbage patch of the Atlantic. Law, who has sailed through the plastic accumulation in the Pacific gyre as well, says the term “plastic soup” is more accurate for both areas. “There’s no large patch, no solid mass of material,” she says.