What is the Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch?

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch or GPGP is the biggest plastic accumulation zone in the world’s oceans. It is situated in the North Pacific Gyre, between Hawaii and California.

It is an enormous collection of trash deposited by ocean currents in the middle of the North Pacific Ocean. The trash mainly comprises plastic debris and is not only huge but is also scattered along a vast expanse, making it challenging to clear up the choked-up water space.

Apart from GPGP, other trash vortexes exist in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. However, they are relatively smaller compared to GPGP, which covers 1.6 million square kilometers, double the size of Texas and thrice the size of France.

The GPGP was discovered in 1997 by a yachtsman named Charles Moore, who was shocked to see marine debris and larger items consisting of buoyant plastic and other waste on his way to Los Angeles. The patch was named by a Seattle-based oceanographer studying ocean currents and finding lost cargo at seas.

great pacific garbage patch map

How is the Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch formed?

The Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch results from human wastefulness and disregard for mother nature. However, it is accumulated due to ocean currents in the North Pacific, known as the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre.

According to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the gyre is a system of swirling ocean currents. It also defines a garbage zone as a vortex of plastic and other debris broken into smaller particles in the oceans.

The North Pacific Subtropical Gyre is made of four currents covering 20 million square kilometers. These clockwise rotating currents include California, Kuroshio, North Equatorial, and North Pacific Current. The gyre currents carry the trash in their path and deposit them in the middle of the North Pacific Ocean.

Illustrations of Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch
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The entire process of the gyre collecting and depositing trash happens in the East and the West part of the Pacific Ocean, thus making the Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch a convergence of the East garbage patch and the West garbage patch in the North Pacific.

The vast mass of waste floating in the North Pacific has ended up as a pathway that comes in the way that fishers and ships are forced to avoid.


Effects of the Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch On Marine Life

But while humans successfully avoid the Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch, sea animals and creatures cannot do so and inadvertently fall prey to the plastic piled up in the Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch. And the debris includes not only plastic but also toxic substances that are entirely non-biodegradable and fishing nets that end up trapping mammals like whales and dolphins which pass through the water.

The garbage harms the marine environment in several ways, especially by interfering with marine food webs. It harms plankton and algae by preventing the sunlight they require for photosynthesis to generate energy. Marine debris can carry species to other habitats and new ecosystems, promoting the spread of invasive species in the oceans.

Loggerhead sea turtles can eat plastic bags, which they mistake for jellyfish-their favorite food.  Albatrosses think of plastic resin pellets for fish eggs and give them to their chicks, who die of starvation or ruptured stomachs. Seals and other mammals can die of entanglement from abandoned fishing nets, also called ghost nets.

Infographic of Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch
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The most unfortunate part, however, is that the amount of waste and garbage piled over due to the gyre is challenging to clean up. According to one researcher who has extensively covered the subject of the Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch, the clean-up operation to clear the Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch could end up bankrupting several nations. The severity of the problem is quite evident from this statement, and it is enough to make one wonder how to solve the problem.

The Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch extends to several miles right in the deep sea, so the threat of destruction of marine life looms even larger. And in modern times, where the ecology is being troubled due to global warming and oil spills, it becomes relevant that this unorthodox waste dump is cleared up as soon as possible.


How Can We Help?

And while it is agreed that it is pretty impossible to clean up the mess created by our oversight in the first place, it is not impossible to rectify the mistake. By using biodegradable items instead of the toxic and non-biodegradable ones, we will be able to minimize the effect of the gyre carrying and depositing the waste and thus adding to the Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch. By making people aware of their mistakes regarding the use of plastics which can prove to be hazardous not just to sea creatures and mammals but also to the birds who get attracted to flashy colors and could thus lose their lives choking up on plastic, change can be brought about.

By using paper bags and other alternatives that can successfully replace plastic bags, one can strive to achieve the purpose of tackling the Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch. Considering the environment and its other creatures, we must bring about a positive change in our lifestyle as fast as possible.

Ocean Cleanup

The Garbage Patch has been targeted by a 32 million dollar cleanup campaign started by a Dutch teenager named Boyan Slat, leader of the Ocean Cleanup Campaign. According to scientific reports, microplastics constitute 94 % of an estimated 1.8 trillion pieces of ocean plastic. However, this is equal to just 8% of the total tonnage. The 79,000 metric tons of plastic in the patch also contain fishing gear, ropes, oyster spacers, crates, eel traps, baskets, and so on. Also, 20% of debris is from the Japanese tsunami of 2011.

According to scientists, this marine litter is growing at an alarming rate and contributes to marine pollution, making the water look like a cloudy soup. The microplastics float on the sea surface while 70 percent of the larger pieces sink to the ocean floor. Hence, even the seafloor beneath the debris is an underwater trash heap!

The 2015 Mega Expedition included 30 ships and over 600 nets that crossed the garbage patch. Many shipowners used their vessels in the mission organized by Ocean Cleanup Organization. Several ships carried a Manta-trawl behind them and a mothership. The Ocean Starr also took six-meter broad trawls and a survey balloon.

The team returned with more than 1.2 million plastic samples, which allowed scientists to conclude the amount, distribution, and kind of waste found in the patch and its impact on marine life.

Watch an informative video on the pacific ocean garbage patch:

Frequently Asked Questions about Great Pacific Garbage Patch

1. How big is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch 2020?

It covers 1.6 million square kilometers, twice the size of Texas and thrice the size of France.

2. Why is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch at risk?

Most factories and manufacturing units dealing with plastics do not take appropriate measures. It leads to an addition to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Also, tiny plastic pellets used for manufacturing plastic are found across the world’s beaches.

3. Why are garbage patches dangerous?

They harm marine life, the marine environment, and the complex ecosystem by affecting over 100,000 marine mammals, killing them, and polluting their habitats.

4. Why don’t they clean up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch?

The size of the GPGP is enormous, and it cannot be cleaned up so easily. Also, it contains microplastics that are not easily removable. In a year, we would require 67 ships to clean less than 1% of the garbage from the GPGP.

5. Is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch increasing?

New studies reveal that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch comprises 16 times more plastic than previously estimated. Its size grows daily due to increasing pollution and plastic dumped in the world’s oceans.

6. What will happen to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch?

The garbage floats on the water surface, and as more trash enters the garbage patch, it is not likely to leave the zone until it degrades into small microplastics under the effect of the sun, waves, and the marine environment.

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About Author

Raunek Kantharia is a marine engineer turned maritime writer and entrepreneur. After a brief stint at the sea, he founded Marine Insight in 2010. Apart from managing Marine Insight, he also writes for a number of maritime magazines and websites.

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  1. The author writes, “And while it is agreed that it is quite impossible to clean-up the mess ….”

    Says who? Using tools common in commercial fishing and methods common in agriculture, this mess can be cleaned up. the real question is whether there is sufficient value in the debris to support the effort or will is require some form of subsidy or bounty. It should not be difficult to make an estimate of the states or origin by some sub-sampling.

  2. It is a monument built to enduring greed stupidity and blind ambition of the human races destructive waste of resources and mismanagement of the oceans and now thanks to Fukishima the Pacific patch is radioactive in the range of lethal Rads radiation as well.

  3. “These ocean currents called the sub-tropical gyre are perpetually present in the North Pacific Ocean waters and they are the main reason behind the accumulated waste.”

    Nice blame the ocean not the we who have been throwing our trash in it.

  4. @ Chris: We are not blaming “OCEAN” or Mother Nature. Just explaining the reason for accumulation..
    Yes! The ultimate culprit behind this is Mankind :).

  5. Where exactly is this alleged garbage patch?

    Is there any evidence to support it’s existence?

  6. I would like to know where you got your photos I am hoping to use them in a visualized curriculum for third graders.

  7. I suspect most of the photos are used for sensationalistic effect and not actually taken in the North Pacific Gyre. Having personally sailed tens of thousands of miles in the Pacific, I can attest there are certainly signs of industrialized man in regions where currents favor floating debris accumulation. However, sensationalistic statements like, “toxic trash islands the size of Texas”, and claiming that “ships are forced to avoid” them (false), only serve to undermine the environmental cause’s credibility in the long run. Let’s stick to pragmatic and verifiable information as well as a level headed decisions as to whether these things are mere aesthetic blights or real risks.

  8. I’m having a hard time believing the picture of a man in a canoe is of the garbage patch. And there seems to be land in the background of the other picture. I get it that it’s a problem, but these photos seem questionable.

  9. I am interested in collecting plastic garbage spread all over pacific ocean. Will anyone guide me how do i do this? Or is there any institution / NGO working on this.

  10. When are we going to learn that we are ruining the planet and that we need to stop

  11. ive got 3 questions.

    1.When did The Great Pacific Garbage Patch first start forming and how can we get all the trash out of it?
    2.why can’t we stop the use of plastic? We can package liquids in glass that is recycled and paper or cardboard which can be recycled burned or overtime broke down by moisture. Why do we necessary need to use so much plastic?
    3.Why do we have plastic islands? And How are they effecting wildlife?

  12. 1. it all started out when humans began to throw trash into the ocean. the current drag all the trash out into the middle of the pacific making it a rough way for transportation. how do you get rid off it? in my opinion i would say, start gathering people from around the world to come clean up.

    2. Your question eventually leads to money. Plastic is easy and cheap. If no-one bothers, why change? If more people will challenge the status quo, like you do, change will follow. And I am sure that we can all benefit from a plastic replacement.

    3. we have plastic islands because humans do not know how to throw their trash out properly. the trash that is floating in the ocean is killing the animals habitats and all other kinds of things.

    there you go Tom

  13. When you say, ¨These ocean currents called the sub-tropical gyre are perpetually present in the North Pacific Ocean waters and they are the main reason behind the accumulated waste.¨ You should include that you are not blaming mother nature or the ocean, I say this because we are the ones who did it.

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