The Great Pacific Garbage Patch

After seeing the documentary “Tapped” I have not been able to stop thinking about the portion in the film regarding the “garbage patch” in our oceans. I like many,  really had no idea how severe the problem has become.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, also described as the Pacific Trash Vortex, is a gyre of marine litter in the central North Pacific Ocean located roughly between 135° to 155°W and 35° to 42°N. Most current estimates state that it is larger than the U.S. state of Texas, with some estimates claiming that it is larger than the continental United States, however the exact size is not known.

The Patch is characterized by exceptionally high concentrations of pelagic plastics, chemical sludge, and other debris that have been trapped by the currents of the North Pacific Gyre. Despite its size and density, the patch is not visible from satellite photography since it primarily consists of suspended particulate in the upper water column. Since plastics break down to ever smaller polymers, concentrated particulate is not visible from space nor appears as a continuous debris field. Instead, the patch is defined as an area in which the mass of plastic debris in the upper water column is significantly higher than average.

Home to millions of pieces of garbage (overwhelmingly plastic), the Patch occupies an expanse of ocean about the twice size of Texas, though it’s official “borders” are somewhat difficult to determine.

  • 90% of all garbage floating in the ocean is plastic This plastic will photodegrade (break down from sun exposure) into tiny pieces but need thousands of years to fully biodegrade
  • Every square mile of ocean hosts 46,000 pieces of floating plastic
  • 80% of ocean trash originates on land
  • Of the more than 200 billion pounds of plastic produced annually, 10% ends up in the ocean
  • More than a million birds and marine animals die each year from consuming or becoming caught in plastic and other debris

As these pieces of plastic break down smaller and smaller, they work their way into the food chain…and into our diets. As smaller fish consume the bits (often inadvertently), the larger fish consume the smaller fish. Which are, of course, eaten by humans in turn. Even worse, these small bits of plastic (called nurdles) often soak up other dangerous compounds and toxins in the ocean, those usually rendered harmless by dissipation in water. But when concentrated in the nurdles, they are once again a threat.
Check out the video below:

Though virtually unknown by the general public until recently, sailors have observed this for decades, navigating through open seascapes dotted with plastic trash. One sailor, the now legendary Captain Charles Moore, was so disturbed by the sight of this “trashed Pacific” in 1997 that he directed his organization, the Algalita Marine Research Foundation (AMRF) to focus on plastic pollution. Just how much was out there? What impact was it having on marine ecosystems? And are there any solutions in sight?

Ana Cummings of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation writes:

“Looks like we found the Atlantic Garbage Patch”.

Standing on the bow of the 72-foot Sea Dragon, our crew gazed silently at a trail of brown seaweed mats peppered with countless pieces of plastic trash. Bottle caps, shot gun shells, toys, flip-flops, and buckets marred the delicate, leafy-brown plants, gently floating this synthetic load of urban detritus. Thousands of miles from land, in the middle of the Sargasso Sea, we were witnessing the same scenario as in the North Pacific Gyre, the infamous “Great Pacific Garbage Patch”. Only this was the North Atlantic.

Many have by now heard about plastic in the Pacific Gyre, a slowly spinning, massive oceanic system formed by opposing currents, winds, and the earth’s rotation. Plastic trash from land – the water bottles, bags, toys, cups, and other disposable objects we use and toss daily – make their way out to sea through rivers, storm drains, and our own carelessness. Swept up into the currents of the gyre, these durable petroleum products can travel thousands of miles, breaking into increasingly smaller fragments, but never fully disappearing.

In 2008, I joined Captain Moore, Dr. Marcus Eriksen, and 3 others on AMRF’s 8th expedition across the North Pacific Gyre – a life-changing voyage. We found evidence of plastic in every single surface trawl over 4,000 miles. We documented plastic entering the food chain, ingested by small foraging fish that surface at night to feed. We watched countless bottle caps and plastic fragments float beyond the reach of our nets. And in the middle of this plastic soup, Dr. Eriksen fished out a piece of synthetic rope, wove a small blue ring, and proposed. I said yes.

The voyage sparked new questions, projects, and a desire to find solutions. Seeing plastic in the stomachs of fish triggered concerns about potential human health risks. Scientists know that plastic particles can absorb pollutants such as PCBs and DDTs. Plastics also contain chemical additives like flame-retardants (PBDEs) and bisphenol-A (BPA). Are these chemicals getting into the tissues of fish that eat plastic? And if so, are they working their way up the food chain, onto our dinner plate, and into our tissues?

We also began to wonder about the other oceanic gyres – the North and Soth Atlantic, the South Pacific, and the Indian Ocean. Are the other oceans turning into a plastic soup?

So began 5 Gyres, a partnership between Algalita and Pangaea Explorations to study plastic in the world’s oceans. Last month, we returned from our first, 3,000 mile expedition across the North Atlantic, from St. Thomas to Bermuda to the Azores. Despite winter seas and hurricanes, we found plastic in every one of our 35 trawls. And we saw more evidence of plastic interacting with marine life, including a fish living inside a plastic bucket, grown too large to escape. Perhaps a dark metaphor for our own path. Unless….

To stop plastic from trashing our oceans, we must begin at home, slashing our consumption of disposables. We’ve been lulled by marketing schemes to consume products that flush our money and our environment down the drain. Take bottles: access to clean water should be a right, yet companies profit by selling us this universal resource. Will we buy bottled air next? We must also demand that our legislators respond by banning single use throwaways, encouraging the design of truly recyclable products, and coming up with better incentives to recover plastics that choke our waterways.

No one single solution will solve this problem, we need a range of solutions, from personal choice, to local action, to International cooperation. But we can’t afford to wait another moment – dive in.

Anna Cummins has over 10 years of experience in environmental non-profit work, education, writing, and campaign development. She has worked in marine conservation, coastal watershed management, sustainabilty education, and high school ecology instruction. In 2007 she joined the Algalita Marine Research Foundation as education adviser, conducting school outreach and giving public presentations on the plastics issue. With Algalita, Anna completed a month long, 4,000 mile research expedition studying plastic debris in the North Pacific Gyre. Track Anna and her 5 Gyres journey at:

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