The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is an accumulation of marine debris that sits between Japan and the United States of America.
It’s vast, and it’s a major problem, but it’s not the dense island of garbage that people picture when they think of the garbage patch.
What is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch?
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is composed of both the Western Garbage Patch and the Eastern Garbage Patch, located from Hawaii to Japan and from California to Hawaii respectively. It is located in the North Pacific Ocean.
Also known as the Pacific trash vortex, it is a formation of marine debris from the Pacific Rim and according to the Ocean Cleanup project, it spans over 620,000 square miles.
What’s in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch?
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is often erroneously considered to be a large floating island—or a series of floating islands—composed entirely of trash.
In actual fact, large parts of the patch can’t be detected by satellite imagery and would even be missed by boats exploring the area. It’s very low density, spanning just 4 particles per cubic meter, and most of the particles are no bigger than a pea.
That doesn’t mean it’s not a problem, though. After all, it spans thousands of square miles and is thought to contain over 2.6 metric tons of plastic. What’s more, as humanity’s plastic obsession grows, the quantity of marine debris increases.
It has been said that there are around 6 pounds of plastic for every 1 pound of plankton. The latter is a vital source of food for many marine creatures and plays an important role in the marine ecosystem. The former is harmful waste that doesn’t biodegrade.
Low-density or not, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is still a massive problem and one that’s not going away any time soon.
What Plastic Debris is in the Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch?
Ocean plastic pollution is seen as a very modern problem, and our consumption has increased over the last couple of decades. However, some of the plastic debris located in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is thought to be over 50 years old.
It includes over 80% of land-based plastic debris, including plastic bags, toothbrushes, plastic bottles, and pens. There are also a lot of plastic resin pellets, which are used in plastic manufacturing.
Of the 20% of marine-based plastics, most come from fishing nets and other fishing gear. Much of this plastic debris is believed to originate from Chinese cargo ships, with close to half of it consisting of fishing nets.
Why is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch so Problematic?
Marine debris in general is a massive problem. It accumulates on gyres (as with the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and a similar patch in the Atlantic Ocean) or on coastlines and it wreaks havoc on marine life.
Garbage patches contaminate the food chain, trap marine life, and even lead to issues for boats and divers.
Microplastics are the perfect example of how harmful and almost insidious these garbage patches can become.
Microplastics are used in hygiene products such as soaps and gels. They are small plastic beads that provide an exfoliating effect, much like grains of sugar or salt. These plastics are flushed down plug holes and as they are just a couple of millimeters big, they slip through filtration systems and make it to the ocean.
Once there, they can be consumed by filter-feeding marine creatures, causing them great harm in the process. These fish are then eaten by other creatures, including humans, and if they start dying in large numbers, it has a knock-on effect that could impact the entire food chain.
Ocean plastics also block sunlight and inhibit the growth of algae while leeching harmful chemicals into the water.
Is Anyone Cleaning the Great Pacific Garbage Patch?
The Ocean Cleanup is a Dutch-based nonprofit devoted to cleaning the world’s oceans. It has done a lot of work in the Pacific Ocean and has provided most of what we know about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and the marine debris problem in general.
In 2021, The Ocean Cleanup collected over 63,000 pounds of plastic during a mission that lasted for several months. Other missions have also been conducted in the area and a great deal of progress has been made in the last few years.
However, there is still a mass of marine debris out there and the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is growing all of the time.
How Big is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch?
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is thought to be over 620,000 square miles, which is roughly twice the size of Texas. Estimations have varied, though, with some going as low as 270,000 square miles and others suggesting a figure closer to 5.8 million square miles.
How Can I Help with the Great Pacific Garbage Patch?
If you want to help with the cleanup and become part of the solution and not the problem, you should begin by reducing your consumption of single-use plastics.
Plastic bags, hygiene products, plastic bottles, and other common household products compose the majority of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and while cleanup is required to remove them, a change in attitude is needed to ensure they don’t keep coming back.
Arrange local cleanups to remove trash from beaches and do what you can to spread the message and show people the damage being done by the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
To support the work of The Ocean Cleanup directly, you can make a donation through the charity’s website. They also sell products that help to fund their work, including a pair of sunglasses, with every cent going toward cleanup operations.
Some of the other ocean charities you should consider helping include:
- Surfrider Foundation: A network of activists dealing with ocean plastic pollution.
- Parley for the Oceans: Aims to limit ocean plastic pollution by changing consumer attitudes and removing marine debris.
- Oceana: An international group that works to reduce and prevent ocean pollution all over the world.
- Ocean Defenders Alliance: A non-profit that is devoted to solving the marine debris problem.
- Greenpeace: Greenpeace is an activist organization that tackles general environmental issues, including the growing problem of marine debris.
- Sea of Change: A non-profit that promotes conservation and education surrounding marine pollution.
This is just a small selection of the many non-profits out there. Check your local area to see if there are any based nearby that you can help directly, either by volunteering your time or arranging fundraisers.