Clean Tech 101

What is The Great Pacific Garbage Patch?

A Load of Rubbish
How Big Is The Great Pacific Garbage Patch?
What Is Found In The Great Pacific Garbage Patch?
Are There Other Garbage Patches Out There?
Can We Clean Up The Great Pacific Garbage Patch?
Sources and Further Reading

A Load of Rubbish

Floating in a remote part of the Pacific Ocean, a giant testament to the throwaway culture that now pervades the world is growing at an alarming rate. An area of ocean, which some estimate to be the size of Texas, has become the planets largest dump, containing non-biodegradable waste that has floated from land and gathered in the North Pacific. Welcome to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

This garbage patch is not a firm island or blanket of rubbish as the name suggests, but rather an area of ocean in which human debris is concentrated – in some areas this concentration is up to 90%.

As plastics contain toxic chemicals, these can enter the food chain when plastics are consumed by birds and marine life and cause untold damage to large marine ecosystems.

How Big Is The Great Pacific Garbage Patch?

Though there have been many attempts to quantify the size of the garbage patch, it has proved a surprisingly difficult task. It is hard to measure for several reasons. Firstly, the trash cannot be seen from satellite photographs or even from the side of a boat, as the majority of the patch is comprised of tiny particles of plastic not visible to the human eye. Also, the edges of the garbage patch will be constantly shifting as it is not a solid mass. Furthermore, because the concentrations across the patch are inconsistent, and ships tend to only explore areas with high concentrations, a statistically accurate representation of the size of the patch is still not available.

Many attempts have been made across the media to try and provide an imaginable size for the garbage patch, with the two most common comparisons being ‘the size of Texas’ and ‘twice the size of France’.

Furthermore, what is generally referred to as ‘The Great Pacific Garbage Patch’ is in fact two patches connected by a thin strip. The Western Pacific Patch is found off the coast of Japan and the Eastern Pacific Patch is found between Hawaii and California.

What is certain is that the patch has been growing at an extremely quick pace. A recent paper in The Royal Society Journal Biology Letters says that between 1972 and 1987, hardly any plastic particles were found in the area. Since this time, the concentration of small plastic particles has increased 100-fold.

The size in some respects is not relevant however as the patch should not be there in the first place. Below is a fascinating talk regarding the Great Pacific Garbage Patch by one of the first men to study it, Capt. Charles Moore.

What Is Found In The Great Pacific Garbage Patch?

The majority of the debris in the garbage patch is plastic, mainly in the form of particles too small to see with the naked eye. The likely reason for this is that many plastics float and can get easily taken by ocean currents. Furthermore, plastics are non-biodegradable and so will not get broken down by the ocean once offshore (unlike, for example, food waste).

The last reason is that modern society is hugely dependent on plastic and not enough is being done to reuse it. As an example, somewhere between 500 billion and 1 trillion plastic bags are used every year along with 3 million tons of plastic bottles, of which 80% goes straight into the trash.

Are There Other Garbage Patches Out There?

There are several other garbage patches that litter the ocean, though these are not on the same scale. There is thought to be a growing garbage patch in the western North Atlantic Ocean, but not enough research on this has been undertaken.

The exact processes involved in the formation of these patches are complex and still the matter of scientific debate. In general terms the patches are caused by ocean eddies and frontal meanders, and on a larger scale gyres, which trap the garbage together in a concentrated area.

Can We Clean Up The Great Pacific Garbage Patch?

Unfortunately, though more people are becoming aware of the garbage patch, many scientists feel that there is little that can be done to clear it up. The first problem is the sheer size of the ocean: the Pacific Ocean has an area of around 15 times that of the United States. Moreover, the concentration of the plastic is extremely variable from day-to-day and area-to-area, so trawling the ocean for the garbage would not be cost effective. Lastly, as most of the particles of plastic are tiny, the water would have to be filtered to remove the plastic-a process that could be dangerous to local sea life.

The most useful course of action for the future is to acknowledge that humans have created this issue and to drastically cut our plastic consumption.

Sources and Further Reading

Cut Your Use of Plastic, Plastic, Plastic,

De-mystifying the "Great Pacific Garbage Patch", NOAA Marine Debris Program

Great Pacific Garbage Patch 'has increased 100-fold since the 1970s', The Telegraph, 09/05/2012

Drowning in plastic: The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is twice the size of France, The Telegraph, 24/04/2009

Kubota, M. 1994. A mechanism for the accumulation of floating marine debris north of Hawaii. Journal of Physical Oceanography 24:1059–1064.

Law, K., S. Moret-Ferguson, N. Maximenko, G. Proskurowski, E. Peacock, J. Hafner, and C. Reddy. 2010. Plastic Accumulation in the North Atlantic Subtopical Gyre. Science Express. 19 August 2010 issue.

Mio, S.I., S. Takehama, and S. Matsumura. 1990. Distribution and density of floating objects in the North Pacific based on 1987 sighting survey. In: R.S. Shomura and M.L. Godfrey, Editors, Proceedings of the Second International Conference on Marine Debris2–7 April, 1989, US Dept. Commer., NOAA Tech. Memo. NMFS, NOAA-TM-NMFS-SWFSC-154, pp. 212–246 Honolulu, Hawaii.

Morishige, C., M. Donohue, E. Flint, C. Swenson, and C. Woolaway. 2007. Factors affecting marine debris deposition at French Frigate Shoals, Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument, 1990-2002. Marine Pollution Bulletin 54: 1162-1169.

Pichel, W., J. Churnside, T. Veenstra, D. Foley, K. Friedman, R. Brainard, J. Nicoll, Q. Zheng, and P. Clemente-Colon. 2007. Marine debris collects within the North Pacific Subtropical Convergence Zone. Marine Pollution Bulletin 54: 1207-1211.

G.P. Thomas

Written by

G.P. Thomas

Gary graduated from the University of Manchester with a first-class honours degree in Geochemistry and a Masters in Earth Sciences. After working in the Australian mining industry, Gary decided to hang up his geology boots and turn his hand to writing. When he isn't developing topical and informative content, Gary can usually be found playing his beloved guitar, or watching Aston Villa FC snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.


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