Is The Great Pacific Garbage Patch Real?

What exactly is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch? Often described as a ‘trash island’, it is the largest accumulation of ocean garbage in the world. More specifically, it is a gyre of plastic particles, sludge and unidentified debris swirling around in the north central Pacific Ocean. Sound like an environmental nightmare? It is.

With something as unfathomable as a giant, ever-growing, patch of ocean trash, there are a lot of unanswered questions out there. So we’re going to cover some of the big ones with some real deal Great Pacific Garbage Patch facts. Ready?

How big is Great Pacific Garbage Patch, really?

Unfortunately, the patch continues to grow every day, but it’s estimated to be roughly 1.6 million square kilometers in size. Having a hard time picturing that? That’s more than twice the size of Texas or 3 times the size of France!

Where did all this trash come from?

The debris is collecting from locations all around the Pacific Rim, from California to Japan. It can take ‘land trash’ roughly 6 years to get to the patch from North America or a year from contributing Asian countries. Which is where the majority is suspected to come from. This shouldn’t be too much of a surprise, as China, the Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, and Thailand are the world’s top contributors of Ocean trash. But North America is far from off the hook, with the US contributing over 240 million pounds of garbage to the Ocean every year.

What exactly is the Patch made of?

While you might be imagining large pieces of garbage and billions of water bottles tangled together in a huge mass, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is largely made of tiny microplastics. This is one of the reasons it’s so hard to actually measure the exact size of the patch, as it’s not always visible to the naked eye. And while our land trash makes up the majority of the debris, roughly 20% of the total patch is made of lost or abandoned fishing nets or ‘ghost nets’ as they’re sometimes called.

How does the Great Pacific Garbage Patch affect humans?

Hopefully, you care about the global environmental implications of this swirling garbage nightmare (we know you do!) but it’s fair to ask, “How does this affect me?”. The short answer is that sea life consumes the plastic and then humans eat sea life. The question is no longer “Are we consuming plastic in our seafood?” but instead “How much plastic is safe for human consumption?”. Already a vegetarian? Then perhaps you’d like to know…

How does the Great Pacific Garbage Patch affect sea life?

As plastics break down from water and sun exposure, they become what is referred to as microplastics. These can range from fingernail size to itty bitty grains of plastic sand. Unfortunately, marine life can have a very hard time distinguishing between tasty treats, like plankton and toxic plastics and gobble them up. While birds and turtles will graze on the top layer of the ‘island’ that we see above water, fish will feast on the 70% of the sea trash that sinks below the surface. Yet, ingesting the toxic debris isn’t the only dire impact the patch has on sea life. As we mentioned above, about 20% of the total ‘island’ is made of cast-off fishing nets which entangle a wide variety of marine life and will often result in their death.

Ok, so should we all just give up?

We get it, this sounds like an unfixable nightmare of our own doing. So should we all throw in the towel and accept it? Absolutely not! On a large scale, it’s worth noting that The Ocean Clean Up has been working on fine tuning something they call the System 001, a way of catching ocean garbage while leaving sea life undisturbed. It’s not yet perfect but it’s being reworked as of early 2019 with the intentions of heading back out to Great Pacific Garbage Patch to gather the debris and bring it back to land for sorting and recycling. That sounds optimistic, but what can you do on a personal level?

But what can I do about it?

It’s no big shocker that the greatest contributor to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is our global relationship to disposable plastics. So making changes in your personal life to change how you use (or don’t use!) plastics can help us avoid even more patches from in the future. Consider not only what plastics you’re using but what you’re doing with them after you’re done. Going completely plastic-free and zero-waste can be a hard task to take on but making small changes like bringing your own cutlery or avoiding sandwich bags will make a difference. And by making it look easy, you can help encourage others to do the same. It’s easy to feel like your personal contributions won’t have any effect, but trash islands like this one (and it’s not the only one, just the biggest!) happen because of consumer acceptance of virgin plastics. If companies stop profiting on new plastics, they’ll stop making them. The power is in our hands and in our wallets!

What steps do you take in your life to reduce plastic waste? Let us know in the comments.

Great Pacific Garbage Patch Trash Island

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  • I too am old enough to remember the world without plastic. I have my cloth bags for shopping, my mesh bags for veggies and bread, my toothbrush is bamboo, I recently bought two t shirts made from plastic bottles and a mix of cotton, I avoid food that is wrapped in plastic,etc (all of the above comments) . Hopefully we can get companies to change their ways….our lives and the lives of all depend on this and getting governments to actually immediately do things about climate change NOW! We have perhaps 11 years until……………….It is real people that is my college degree!

    Beth Merrill on
  • I have learned to say the following to cashiers in grocery stores, liquor stores, or any stores where the first action of the person tending the till after scanning the goods is to grab a chunk of plastic, “I won’t be needing a bag today.” There’s never any fuss but sometimes they ask if I’m sure. I tell them, “Yes I am, thanks and I’m trying to save the ocean.” Occasionally that will start a conversation. Last fall I announced my intention to go bagless and a young man who was about to bag up my groceries gave me a heartfelt smile and he said to me, “My grandchildren thank you for that, sir.” It’s my way of spreading the word.

    L.J. Ganser on
  • I am of an age that remembers before plastic.
    So I search out food in glass containers, use mesh produce bags, bring bags to shop with.
    Won’t buy plastic wrapped food if I can avoid it. Use parchment paper, wax paper and reusable wraps.Compost my food scraps and grow some of our food. I have been a vegetarian for over 40 years. Vegan more recently. I’ve been trying to recall how my parents functioned pre plastic. It’s an ongoing process the more aware we become. I recently purchase bamboo toothbrushes and refused the free stuff from the dentist, all plastic. Little things like wooden matches instead of lighters, and don’t forget textiles. Natural fiber clothing biodegrades, synthetics (ie polyester) are basically another form of plastic.

    Linda on
  • I practice the real three R’s: Reduce, reduce, reduce. I don’t buy take-out coffee; I don’t eat in fast-food restaurants or food courts; I never use straws of any kind; I don’t let stores put my purchases in plastic bags; I buy meat from a butcher who never uses styrofoam; (I know that the paper they wrap the meat in contains some plastic coating, but this is for health reasons, so I accept that); I buy almost all of my music via downloads rather than in plastic boxes. I know, it’s just a start, but we can always improve.

    Ken Cory on
  • I use corn bags for groceries and mesh bags for produce. No straws used by me! I feel like some people don’t care or think about it. Or even realize. Which makes me sad.

    Janine on

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