It’s not what you think it is…
When we talk about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch we often imagine a mound of floating trash. In reality, most of the debris is so tiny that it’s not initially seen and may even be missed when traveling through the patch!
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is the largest of five garbage patches found in our oceans.
The garbage patch, located between California and Hawaii, spans a 1.6 million km^2 area and contains approximately 79 thousand tons of debris.
The garbage patch is 99% plastics, ranging from micro to mega-plastics. The types of plastics in our waters vary from hard plastics to fishing gear, such as lines, ropes and nets. The estimated amount of marine debris in the garbage patch is 1.8 trillion particles, 94% of which consists of microplastics!
Although microplastics are the main contributors to the garbage they only amount to 8% of the total weight. Plastics larger than 5 cm in size contribute to over 75% of the total weight. Interestingly enough, 46% of these large plastics were comprised of fishing nets.
The accumulation of this garbage in one area is the result of ocean currents or gyres.
Gyres are rotating water currents that form due to combined effects from the world’s wind patterns, Earth’s rotation and present landmasses.
There are five main gyres, North/South Atlantic subtropical gyres, North/South Pacific subtropical gyres, and Indian ocean subtropical gyre. The North Pacific subtropical gyre are the ocean currents responsible for the accumulation of garbage in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
The ocean currents in this gyre move in a clockwise rotation bringing in garbage accumulating from western North America and eastern Asia. During the constant circling the marine debris ends up residing inside the gyre, forming these large garbage patches.
Garbage patches develop slowly overtime. Although we battle to remove the garbage from these patches, we can prevent more debris from entering our ocean. Beach clean ups are one of the most direct ways to remove debris before it enters our waters. Together we can help limit the garbage accumulation in these patches worldwide.
Lebreton, L., et al. “Evidence That the Great Pacific Garbage Patch Is Rapidly Accumulating Plastic.” Scientific Reports, vol. 8, no. 1, 2018, doi:10.1038/s41598-018-22939-w.
National Geographic Society. “Ocean Gyre.” National Geographic Society, 9 Oct. 2012, www.nationalgeographic.org/encyclopedia/ocean-gyre/.