Giant Pile of Trash in the Ocean?: The Great Pacific Garbage Patch

As a kid, you may have wondered what happens to all of the trash that gets pulled out into the ocean. You may have been told it floats around space, or maybe that it just sinks to the bottom of the ocean.  Did you ever question the validity of these seemingly silly statements?

This ball of garbage at the bottom of the ocean actually does exists and it is continuously growing.  The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a collection of debris in the Pacific Ocean between Hawaii and California. No one knows exactly how much garbage makes up the entirely of the patch as there is no effective method to measure the amount of debris. While some plastics float on the surface, denser debris sinks down lower in the water. It’s estimated size ranges from about the size of Texas (25,000 sq. miles) to about 6 million sq. miles. In all, that means the garbage patch covers about 10% of the entire Pacific Ocean!

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Because the patch is made up of non-biodegradable plastics, called microplastics, which break down into smaller pieces. For a long time, oceanographers and climatologists could only speculate about the existence of the garbage patch because satellite imagery was not able to show it. The area was initially spotted by Charles Moore, a racing boat captain, who went sailing from Hawaii to California, and crossed the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre.  There, he noticed the millions of floating pieces of plastic.

Any type of trash can get into the ocean and be added to the patch, though it is mostly plastic. Scientists have estimated up to 1.9 millions pieces (the size of your pinky nail) per square mile of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

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This garbage is very harmful to marine life. Sea turtles often mistake plastic bags for their favorite food, jellyfish. The plastic rings that hold six-packs together strangle many mammals and birds. The microplastic collects on the surface and blocks the sun, therefore diminishing the food source for algae and plankton below, as well as changing the entire ecosystem in that area.

Starting at the coast of North America, it takes trash about six years to reach the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, while trash from Japan and other Asian countries takes only about one year to become part of the mass. Many international organizations are dedicated to preventing the enlargement of the patch since no country is close enough to assume responsibility to fund its cleanup, which is a very difficult task in itself. Since it’s discovery by Moore, many have traveled through the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Moore raises awareness of plastics polluting the ocean through the Algalita Marine Research Foundation. In 2009, the foundation organized the JUNK Raft Project by sailing across the Pacific Ocean in a raft filled with 15,000 plastic bottles.

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TED Talk of Charles Moore discussing the Great Pacific Garbage Patch

     Next time you’re near a body of water, remember to throw out your trash in an appropriate bin. Even if your garbage is only a small bit of something, if it not biodegradable, it will likely end up in this quickly growing oceanic trash pile.

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