The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a collection of marine debris in the North Pacific Ocean. Marine debris is litter that ends up in oceans, seas, and other large bodies of water.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, also known as the Pacific trash vortex, spans waters from the West Coast of North America to Japan. The patch is actually comprised of the Western Garbage Patch, located near Japan, and the Eastern Garbage Patch, located between the U.S. states of Hawaii and California.

These areas of spinning debris are linked together by the North Pacific Subtropical Convergence Zone, located a few hundred kilometers north of Hawaii. This convergence zone is where warm water from the South Pacific meets up with cooler water from the Arctic. The zone acts like a highway that moves debris from one patch to another.

The entire Great Pacific Garbage Patch is bounded by the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) defines a gyre as a large system of swirling ocean currents. Increasingly, however, it also refers to the garbage patch / a vortex of plastic waste and debris broken down into small particles in the ocean. The North Pacific Subtropical Gyre is formed by four currents rotating clockwise around an area of 20 million square kilometers (7.7 million square miles): the California current, the North Equatorial current, the Kuroshio Current, and the North Pacific current.

The area in the center of a gyre tends to be very calm and stable. The circular motion of the gyre draws debris into this stable center, where it becomes trapped. A plastic water bottle discarded off the coast of California, for instance, takes the California Current south toward Mexico. There, it may catch the North Equatorial Current, which crosses the vast Pacific. Near the coast of Japan, the bottle may travel north on the powerful Kuroshio Current. Finally, the bottle travels westward on the North Pacific Current. The gently rolling vortexes of the Eastern and Western Garbage Patches gradually draw in the bottle.

The amount of debris in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch accumulates because much of it is not biodegradable. Many plastics, for instance, do not wear down; they simply break into tinier and tinier pieces.

For many people, the idea of a garbage patch conjures up images of an island of trash floating on the ocean. In reality, these patches are almost entirely made up of tiny bits of plastic, called microplastics. Microplastics cannot always be seen by the naked eye. Even satellite imagery doesn't show a giant patch of garbage. The microplastics of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch can simply make the water look like a cloudy soup. This soup is intermixed with larger items, such as fishing gear and shoes.

The seafloor beneath the Great Pacific Garbage Patch may also be an underwater trash heap. Oceanographers and ecologists recently discovered that about 70 percent of marine debris actually sinks to the bottom of the ocean.

While oceanographers and climatologists predicted the existence of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, it was a racing boat captain by the name of Charles Moore who actually discovered the trash vortex. Moore was sailing from Hawaii to California after competing in a yachting race. Crossing the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, Moore and his crew noticed millions of pieces of plastic surrounding his ship.

Marine Debris?

No one knows how much debris makes up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The North Pacific Subtropical Gyre is too large for scientists to trawl. In addition, not all of the trash floats on the surface. Denser debris can sink centimeters or even several meters beneath the surface, making the vortex's area nearly impossible to measure.

About 80 percent of the debris in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch comes from land-based activities in North America and Asia. The remaining 20 percent of debris in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch comes from boaters, offshore oil rigs, and large cargo ships that dump or lose debris directly into the water. The majority of this debris — about 705,000 tons — is fishing nets. More unusual items, such as computer monitors and LEGOs, come from dropped shipping containers.

While many different types of trash enter the ocean, plastics make up the majority of marine debris for two reasons. First, plastic's durability, low cost, and malleability mean that it's being used in more and more consumer and industrial products. Second, plastic goods do not biodegrade but instead break down into smaller pieces.

In the ocean, the sun breaks down these plastics into tinier and tinier pieces, a process known as photodegradation. Most of this debris comes from plastic bags, bottle caps, plastic water bottles, and Styrofoam cups.

Marine debris can be very harmful to marine life in the gyre. For instance, loggerhead sea turtles often mistake plastic bags for jellies, their favorite food. Albatrosses mistake plastic resin pellets for fish eggs and feed them to chicks, which die of starvation or ruptured organs.

Seals and other marine mammals are especially at risk. They can get entangled in abandoned plastic fishing nets, which are being discarded largely due to inclement weather and illegal fishing. Seals and other mammals often drown in these forgotten nets — a phenomenon known as "ghost fishing."

Marine debris can also disturb marine food webs in the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre. As microplastics and other trash collect on or near the surface of the ocean, they block sunlight from reaching plankton and algae below. Algae and plankton are the most common autotrophs, or producers, in the marine food web. Autotrophs are organisms that can produce their own nutrients from carbon and sunlight.

If algae and plankton communities are threatened, the entire food web may change. Animals that feed on algae and plankton, such as fish and turtles, will have less food. If populations of those animals decrease, there will be less food for apex predators such as tuna, sharks, and whales. Eventually, seafood becomes less available and more expensive for people.

These dangers are compounded by the fact that plastics both leach out and absorb harmful pollutants. As plastics break down through photodegradation, they leach out colorants and chemicals, such as bisphenol A (BPA), that have been linked to environmental and health problems. Conversely, plastics can also absorb pollutants, such as PCBs, from the seawater. These chemicals can then enter the food chain when consumed by marine life.

Patching Up the Patch

Because the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is so far from any country's coastline, no nation will take responsibility or provide the funding to clean it up. Charles Moore, the man who discovered the vortex, says cleaning up the garbage patch would "bankrupt any country" that tried it.

Many individuals and international organizations, however, are dedicated to preventing the patch from growing.

Cleaning up marine debris is not as easy as it sounds. Many microplastics are the same size as small sea animals, so nets designed to scoop up trash would catch these creatures as well. Even if we could design nets that would just catch garbage, the size of the oceans makes this job far too time-consuming to consider. The National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration's Marine Debris Program has estimated that it would take 67 ships one year to clean up less than one percent of the North Pacific Ocean.

Many expeditions have traveled through the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Charles Moore, who discovered the patch in 1997, continues to raise awareness through his own environmental organization, the Algalita Marine Research Foundation. During a 2014 expedition, Moore and his team used aerial drones, to assess from above the extent of the trash below. The drones determined that there is 100 times more plastic by weight than previously measured. The team also discovered more permanent plastic features, or islands, some over 15 meters (50 feet) in length.

All the floating plastic in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch inspired National Geographic Emerging Explorer David de Rothschild and his team at Adventure Ecology to create a large catamaran made of plastic bottles: the Plastiki. The sturdiness of the Plastiki displayed the strength and durability of plastics, the creative ways that they can be repurposed, and the threat they pose to the environment when they don't decompose. In 2010, the crew successfully navigated the Plastiki from San Francisco, California, to Sydney, Australia.

Scientists and explorers agree that limiting or eliminating our use of disposable plastics and increasing our use of biodegradable resources will be the best way to clean up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Organizations such as the Plastic Pollution Coalition and the Plastic Oceans Foundation are using social media and direct action campaigns to support individuals, manufacturers, and businesses in their transition from toxic, disposable plastics to biodegradable or reusable materials.

 

Great Pacific Garbage Patch
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a soupy collection of marine debris—mostly plastics.
abandon
Verb

to desert or leave entirely.

absorb
Verb

to soak up.

accumulate
Verb

to gather or collect.

aerial
Adjective

existing, moving, growing, or operating in the air.

algae
Plural Noun

(singular: alga) diverse group of aquatic organisms, the largest of which are seaweeds.

apex predator
Noun

species at the top of the food chain, with no predators of its own. Also called an alpha predator or top predator.

Noun

region at Earth's extreme north, encompassed by the Arctic Circle.

assess
Verb

to evaluate or determine the amount of.

Noun

organism that can produce its own food and nutrients from chemicals in the atmosphere, usually through photosynthesis or chemosynthesis.

available
Adjective

ready for use.

bankrupt
Verb

to cause a person or organization to lose their money or other funding and resources.

biodegradable
Adjective

able to decompose naturally.

bisphenol A (BPA)
Noun

chemical used to make some types of plastic that may be unsafe for people, especially infants.

bound
Verb

to limit or confine.

business
Noun

sale of goods and services, or a place where such sales take place.

cargo
Noun

goods carried by a ship, plane, or other vehicle.

catamaran
Noun

sailing vessel made of two large flotation devices and a frame above them.

climatologist
Noun

person who studies long-term patterns in weather.

Noun

edge of land along the sea or other large body of water.

compound
Verb

to combine or put together.

comprise
Verb

to contain or be made up of.

conjure
Verb

to imagine or bring to mind.

consume
Verb

to use up.

consumer
Noun

person who uses a good or service.

convergence zone
Noun

area where prevailing winds from different areas meet and interact.

Noun

steady, predictable flow of fluid within a larger body of that fluid.

Noun

steady, predictable flow of fluid within a larger body of that fluid.

debris
Noun

remains of something broken or destroyed; waste, or garbage.

decompose
Verb

to decay or break down.

decrease
Verb

to lower.

dedicate
Verb

to sincerely devote time and effort to something.

dense
Adjective

having parts or molecules that are packed closely together.

discard
Verb

to throw away.

discover
Verb

to learn or understand something for the first time.

dispose
Verb

to throw away or get rid of.

drone
Noun

unmanned aircraft that can be guided remotely.

durability
Noun

ability to resist wear and decay.

ecologist
Noun

scientist who studies the relationships between organisms and their environments.

Emerging Explorer
Noun

an adventurer, scientist, innovator, or storyteller recognized by National Geographic for their visionary work while still early in their careers.

entangle
Noun

to tangle or twist together.

environment
Noun

conditions that surround and influence an organism or community.

estimate
Verb

to guess based on knowledge of the situation or object.

expedition
Noun

journey with a specific purpose, such as exploration.

expensive
Adjective

very costly.

explorer
Noun

person who studies unknown areas.

extent
Noun

degree or space to which a thing extends.

Noun

group of organisms linked in order of the food they eat, from producers to consumers, and from prey, predators, scavengers, and decomposers.

Noun

all related food chains in an ecosystem. Also called a food cycle.

funding
Noun

money or finances.

ghost fishing
Noun

continued trapping and killing of marine life by a discarded fishing net floating at sea

Noun

area of the North Pacific Ocean where currents have trapped huge amounts of debris, mostly plastics.

harmful
Adjective

damaging.

highway
Noun

large public road.

industrial
Adjective

having to do with factories or mechanical production.

Noun

unit made up of governments or groups in different countries, usually for a specific purpose.

Noun

body of land surrounded by water.

leach
Verb

to separate materials by running water or another liquid through them.

litter
Noun

trash or other scattered objects left in an open area or natural habitat.

malleability
Noun

degree to which something can be shaped or molded.

manufacture
Verb

to make or produce a good, usually for sale.

marine
Adjective

having to do with the ocean.

Noun

garbage, refuse, or other objects that enter the coastal or ocean environment.

marine mammal
Noun

an animal that lives most of its life in the ocean but breathes air and gives birth to live young, such as whales and seals.

measure
Verb

to determine the numeric value of something, often in comparison with something else, such as a determined standard value.

microplastic
Noun

piece of plastic between 0.3 and 5 millimeters in diameter.

navigate
Verb

to plan and direct the course of a journey.

Noun

substance an organism needs for energy, growth, and life.

Noun

large body of salt water that covers most of the Earth.

Noun

an area of ocean that slowly rotates in an enormous circle.

oceanographer
Noun

person who studies the ocean.

offshore
Adjective

having to do with facilities or resources located underwater, usually miles from the coast.

oil rig
Noun

complex series of machinery and systems used to drill for oil on land.

organ
Noun

group of tissues that perform a specialized task.

organism
Noun

living or once-living thing.

PCB
Noun

(polychlorinated biphenal) chemical substance that can occur naturally or be manufactured that may cause cancer.

pellet
Noun

small, rounded object.

phenomenon
Noun

an unusual act or occurrence.

photodegradation
Noun

process by which a substance is broken down by exposure to light.

Noun

large, spherical celestial body that regularly rotates around a star.

plankton
Plural Noun

(singular: plankton) microscopic aquatic organisms.

plastic
Noun

chemical material that can be easily shaped when heated to a high temperature.

Plastiki
Noun

(2009) sailing vessel made partly of plastic water bottles used to travel from San Francisco, California, to Sydney, Australia.

pollutant
Noun

chemical or other substance that harms a natural resource.

population
Noun

total number of people or organisms in a particular area.

predict
Verb

to know the outcome of a situation in advance.

prevent
Verb

to keep something from happening.

previous
Adjective

earlier, or the one before.

producer
Noun

person or organization that creates (produces) goods and services.

resin
Noun

clear, sticky substance produced by some plants.

responsibility
Noun

being accountable and reliable for an action or situation.

Noun

object's complete turn around its own axis.

rupture
Verb

to break or tear.

satellite imagery
Noun

photographs of a planet taken by or from a satellite.

Noun

large part of the ocean enclosed or partly enclosed by land.

seafloor
Noun

surface layer of the bottom of the ocean.

seafood
Noun

fish and shellfish consumed by humans.

shipping
Noun

transportation of goods, usually by large boat.

stable
Adjective

steady and reliable.

starvation
Noun

dying from lack of food.

threaten
Verb

to scare or be a source of danger.

toxic
Adjective

poisonous.

transition
Noun

movement from one position to another.

travel
Noun

movement from one place to another.

trawl
Verb

to fish by dragging a large net along the bottom of the body of water.

vortex
Noun

column of rotating fluid, such as air (wind) or water.

West Coast
Noun

Pacific coast of the United States, usually excluding Alaska.

wind
Noun

movement of air (from a high pressure zone to a low pressure zone) caused by the uneven heating of the Earth by the sun.

yachting
Noun

sport of racing large sailing vessels.