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 bays.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is not the only marine trash patch, but it is the biggest. It spans waters from the West Coast of North America to Japan. The patch is actually made up of two parts: the Western Garbage Patch, located near Japan, and the Eastern Garbage Patch, located between Hawaii and California.

The entire Great Pacific Garbage Patch is bounded by the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre. A gyre is a large system of swirling ocean currents. 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 eastward on the North Pacific Current. The gently rolling vortexes of the Eastern and Western Garbage Patches slowly 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 summons up images of an island of trash floating on the ocean. In fact, these patches are almost entirely made up of tiny bits of plastic, called microplastics. The debris cannot always be seen by the naked eye. It can simply make the water look like a cloudy soup. Larger items, such as fishing gear and shoes, are mixed into this soup.

The seafloor beneath the Great Pacific Garbage Patch may also be an underwater trash heap. About 70 percent of marine debris eventually sinks to the bottom of the ocean.

Marine Debris Clutters Ocean

Most plastic in the ocean comes from land-based sources, but some of it comes from marine sources. A lot of plastic from boats has accumulated in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. A 2018 study found that fishing nets alone made up nearly half its mass.

While many different types of trash enter the ocean, plastics make up the majority of marine debris for two reasons. First, plastic's durability and low cost 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. 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 can mistake plastic resin pellets for fish eggs. They then feed the pellets to their 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. Seals and other mammals often drown in these forgotten nets.

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. If these marine plants 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 their populations decrease, there will be less food for the animals that feed on them, such as tuna, sharks and whales. 

These dangers are worsened by the fact that plastics both release and absorb harmful pollutants. As plastics break down, they release chemicals that have been linked to environmental and health problems. Plastics can also absorb pollutants from the seawater. These chemicals can then enter the food chain when consumed by marine life.

Cleaning Up The Patch

Because the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is so far from any country's coastline, no nation will take responsibility for cleaning it up. However, many international organizations 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. Scientists estimate that it would take 67 ships one year to clean up less than one percent of the North Pacific Ocean.

Scientists agree there is a better way to clean up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch: The countries of the world must limit or end their use of disposable plastics.

 

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.

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.

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.