The Great Pacific Garbage Patch

There’s no doubt the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is comprised of millions of tons of trash—most of it plastic—but is it “twice the size of Texas?” E investigates…

plastic oceanTwice the size of Texas. That’s the reported size of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, an expanse of trash that’s accumulated in the North Pacific Ocean, hundreds of miles off the coasts of California and Hawaii. It’s been repeated in the The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times and on CNN. The reported size of the patch has been heavily debated­—as has its depiction as a kind of “trash island,” a solid mass of garbage. The truth is that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is made up of widely dispersed, broken-down plastic waste particles. Holly Bamford, director of the Marine Debris Program for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says, “It’s these hot spots, not one big mass. Maybe if you added them all up it’s the size of Texas, but we still don’t know.” Robert Knox, deputy director for research at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, remarked that though the plastic waste is dispersed, it still represents an incredible amount overall. “The point is it’s a big area of ocean,” Knox says. “Even a few pieces of plastic per square meter amounts to a lot of plastic when you add it up over this enormous ocean area.”

What is known for certain is that the marine debris in the North Pacific Gyre is 80% plastic and it’s mostly coming from land. When plastic bottles, cups and bags are dropped in the street, rain washes them into storm sewers, rivers and eventually the ocean. As oceanographer Charles Moore, who first discovered the patch while sailing in 1997, said, “The ocean is downhill from everything.” Once plastic is in the ocean, it can float for hundreds of miles before it’s caught in a gyre, where it swirls around until sunlight and salt water break it down into small plastic chips. With millions of tons of such trash in the North Pacific Gyre, the water now resembles “plastic soup,” Moore told Good Morning America. He described it as a “minestrone, and all the little vegetables are different colored bits of plastic.”Fish and birds mistake the plastic bits for food, resulting in death by poisoning or digestive blockage. Plastic also absorbs pollutants like banned PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, once widely used in electrical equipment. When we eat contaminated fish, we ingest these harmful chemicals.

To keep concentrations of ocean waste from getting bigger, Moore has said that “our only hope” lies in everyone taking responsibility—buying products with minimal packaging, participating in local beach cleanups and recycling and re-using plastic.

CONTACT: NOAA Marine Debris Program.