Editorial Feature

What is The Great Pacific Garbage Patch?

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Article updated on 29/01/20 by Stephen Edgar

Floating in a remote part of the Pacific Ocean, a giant testament to the throwaway culture pervading the world is growing at an alarming rate. 

An area of ocean has become the planets largest dump, containing non-biodegradable waste that has floated from land and gathered in the North Pacific. This is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

This garbage patch is not an island or a contiguous patch of rubbish as the name suggests, but rather an area of the ocean where human debris is concentrated within a dense central area and a looser outer boundary. The mass of plastic in just the dense center of the patch is estimated at 80,000 tons.

Through a process called bioaccumulation, chemicals in plastics will enter the food chain when consumed by birds and marine life. They will eventually find their way into humans. They are causing untold damage to large marine ecosystems, and cleaning them up is a huge financial burden.

How Big is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch?

Though there have been many attempts to quantify the size of the garbage patch, it has not been an easy task, as it is hard to measure. Perhaps the most comprehensive testing to date has been undertaken by The Ocean Cleanup, who launched six expeditions between 2013 and 2015. 

In 2015 they designed a new research tool called the multi-level trawl allowing them to study eleven layers of water simultaneously to a depth of five meters. That year also saw their “mega-expedition” of 30 vessels and 652 surface nets. The expedition returned over 1.2 million plastic samples for analysis. Every piece collected was counted and classified. 

What is being done to tackle the Great Pacific Garbage Patch?

They followed that in 2016 with an aerial survey to cover a larger area including the less dense outer rim. The survey delivered over 7,000 single frame mosaics. This huge enterprise accumulated data that estimates the site of the GPGP at a surface area of 1.6 million square kilometers, an area twice the size of Texas or three times the size of France.

There can be no doubt that the patch is growing. A 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 at least 100-fold.

Below is a 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?

Much of the debris in the garbage patch is plastic, numerically in the form of particles too small to see with the naked eye but the larger objects comprise the most weight and will eventually break down into smaller pieces. The likely reason for this is that many plastics float and can get easily taken by ocean currents.

Furthermore, plastics are non-biodegradable so they will not get broken down by the ocean once offshore (unlike, for example, food waste).

Finally, 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?

The Pacific patch might be the largest but there are at least four others in the oceans of the world. The exact processes involved in the formation of these patches are complex and are still the subject 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 Ocean Cleanup does not agree, having a long-term plan to design technologies that will reduce, retain and recover 50% of waste in the GPGP every five years. They have designed passive systems that are a cost-effective approach to the clean-up. They include a huge passive collection net that uses a combination of natural forces and a sea anchor to create a drag, which makes the net move consistently slower than the plastic while allowing the plastic to be captured. 

The first thing that needs to be acknowledged is that this is a man-made problem and our plastic consumption has to be drastically reduced. In the meantime, we are relying on organizations like The Ocean Cleanup to collect the waste already, while the world understands the need to reduce its use of unnecessary plastics.

Sources and Further Reading

  • https://theoceancleanup.com/great-pacific-garbage-patch/
  • Cut Your Use of Plastic, Plastic, Plastic, Smithsonian.com
  • 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 Subtropical 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 the 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.

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