The Great Pacific Garbage Patch: What Can Be Done About It?

A giant island of trash in the ocean, representing the Great Pacific garbage patch.

Have you heard about all the garbage in the ocean?

When you first hear about it, you may imagine a giant trash island.

But that’s not really what the Great Pacific garbage patch looks like – and ocean litter ends up in more than just one aquatic landfill.

Can fleets of garbage-boats solve the growing sea trash problem?

You can make simple lifestyle changes you can make to help stop the flow of plastic – but let’s first talk about how and why these trash vortices exist.

What is the great pacific garbage patch?

If you were to sample a small amount of seemingly-empty seawater and closely inspect its contents, you’d likely find a variety of bacteria, diatoms, and other miniature planktonic creatures.

Scientists are always discovering more of these tiny organisms, and it requires a powerful microscope to get a good glimpse of them swimming about in their watery homes.

Stylosphaera flexuosa, a radiolarian zooplankton species found in the ocean.
Image by Picturepest via Flickr

But something else can also be found if you look close enough – microplastics.

And it really doesn’t matter what you sample; seawater and marine organisms are contaminated with microplastics in general, especially in coastal waters closer to direct sources of pollution.

This is true for any of our oceans, so if you’re someone looking to avoid microplastics – don’t drink seawater.

Jokes aside, it’s not just microplastics that float around in the ocean. All types and sizes of plastic particles are caught up in oceanic currents, traveling about our blue world caught up in oceanic gyres.

ocean gyre: a large system of circulating ocean currents

Eventually, these pieces of ocean plastic end up rotating within the centers of these gyres, found in some of the most remote regions on Earth.

A satellite image showing the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and surrounding ocean gyre.
Imagery ©2023 NASA, TerraMetrics, Map data ©2023 Google, TMap Mobility, INEGI

While the majority of plastic in the ocean is concentrated in these gyres, the Great Pacific garbage patch happens to be the largest one; naturally it attracts most of the attention from those who care about environmental issues.

In other words, humanity has created a pretty serious ocean trash crisis.

How big is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch?

As of 2018, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch alone is home to an estimated 80,000 tons of plastic, with around 2 trillion individual pieces making up this insane amount of trash.

When it comes to the ocean in general, it’s thought that over 170 trillion pieces of ocean plastic waste exist – which could weigh up to 5 million tons.

These are huge numbers, and it’s kind of hard to wrap your mind around the issue, so it helps to visualize how the plastic actually behaves when it’s floating around.

Plastic isn’t a very dense material, which means it tends to float instead of sinking to the ocean floor. And because different types of plastic have different densities, litter in the ocean ends up as more of a soup, not a floating island of trash.

A school of fish swimming amongst floating plastic ocean trash.

While thousands of tons of plastic weighs a lot, the ocean is huge. So even in high concentrations within major garbage patches, there may only be a handful of large particles floating close together.

Because of how spread out all the plastic is, it’s impossible to see the great pacific garbage patch from space – even in satellite images.

It’s easier to think of all this plastic by separating them by size:

  • Megaplastics, larger things like fishing nets, traps, and vessel debris
  • Macroplastics like bottles and plastic bags
  • Mesoplastics such as bottle caps or bits and pieces of rope
  • Microplastics, which are made up of fragments of all of the above

The top layer floating near the surface is largely made up of polyethylene (PE) and polypropylene (PP) plastic pieces, which float, while other plastics like polystyrene (PS) and polyvinyl chloride (PVC) sink.

Meaning, plastic in the sea has contaminated every oceanic layer and ecosystem.

How does trash end up in the ocean?

In 1990, a shipping vessel lost 61,000 brand-new Nike shoes while battling a storm at sea. Shortly after, residents of nearby beaches on the west coast of North America noticed them washing ashore.

Neither the shipping company or Nike were quick to come forward about all of this – but these were expensive shoes in pretty good condition, so the news quickly spread.

Plastic trash littering a beach within Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, Hawaii.

Word soon reached oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer, and he was able to track the floating footwear as it turned up in different places.

Using flotsam, or floating marine debris, Ebbesmeyer found his calling mapping ocean currents around the world; while natural flotsam like driftwood or seaweed has a very short shelf-life in the ocean, Nike’s plastic shoes did not.

From items like these, Ebbesmeyer would eventually be able to track the orbits of 11 distinct ocean gyres, overlapping with the ranges of these massive oceanic garbage patches.

Notably, there were no signs of life on the soles of these shoes after floating upside down in the sea, sometimes for years – even barnacles, the bane of large marine animals and vessels alike, were unable to attach themselves to the plastic soles of a Nike shoe.

Small and large pieces of plastic waste littering a beach.

In fact, the shoes were almost as good as new, nearly unaffected by their time in the ocean. And this is a big issue when it comes to plastic, as it simply doesn’t degrade like we want it to, aside from a handful of expensive bioplastics specifically designed for that purpose.

But most plastic doesn’t enter the ocean from shipping containers spilling into the sea. Much of it makes its way down rivers and streams from our cities and towns before reaching the ocean itself, and every nation plays a part when it comes to our trash filled oceans.

Recycling plastic clearly isn’t a viable, working solution, and unfortunately most of the plastic we use is single-use.

However, the majority of plastic waste in the ocean comes from the fishing industry – in the form of discarded nets, floats, marine paint, crab crates, and all other kinds of fishing-related waste.

What are the environmental impacts of trash in our oceans?

The vast majority of animal life in the ocean occupies warmer, coastal regions; the middle of the ocean is relatively barren in comparison – so wouldn’t an ocean garbage patch be an ideal dumping ground?

In the South Pacific Ocean, which contains a region sometimes called an oceanic desert, this may even be true.

With the environmental cost of cleanup operations being so high – something we’ll cover shortly – perhaps an oceanic landfill could be the least damaging path. But most of these gyres are not barren wastelands, and it’s impossible to control where garbage floating in the ocean ends up anyways.

Ocean plastic has very serious, visible impacts on animal and plant ecology, with the most high-profile cases featuring animals like turtles, dolphins, and whales being ensnared in ghost nets.

Divers loading discarded plastic ghost fishing nets into a clean up boat.

Many other species of animals eat garbage on accident after mistaking plastics bits for food, while filter feeders like mussels are physically unable to avoid ingesting microplastics entirely.

Ingested plastic presents both a physical and chemical threat to animals that consume it; as it can easily become lodged in their digestive system – preventing them from feeding or passing waste, and even leaching chemicals into their bodies.

Because oceanic food webs are almost entirely predatory, plastic particles and the harmful chemicals they leach make their way up the food chain with each link, and eventually end up in our seafood.

In addition to animals like birds making their nests and homes out of plastic, recent reports suggest entire animal communities forming within these ocean garbage patches.

Composed of traditionally-coastal animals like anemones and crabs, who usually reside in reefs – this means that animal life is adjusting to the presence of plastic islands in the ocean.

Is anyone cleaning up the great pacific garbage patch?

You’ve probably heard about the many ocean cleanup operations sprouting up as of late. Some of these have been gaining traction and lots of public attention and support, but they do tend to fall a bit short.

These initiatives have good intentions, but they can also ironically be funded by corporations like Coca-Cola – the world’s largest plastic producer.

It’s admirable to want to clean up and prevent plastic from entering our oceans, but marine cleanups organized by those causing the issue in the first place are simply another form of plastic greenwashing, and a way of distracting from the real solution: not buying plastic in the first place!

Ocean cleanup workers hauling ocean plastic trash into a boat.

Out in the open water, drives to clean up ocean plastic led by environmental organizations like The Ocean Cleanup also increase boat activity, which means more vessel collisions with animals like whales in addition to fuel and energy costs.

Contrary to popular belief, the whaling industry is responsible for a very small amount of cetacean deaths overall; vessel collisions, plastic debris, and overfishing in general is what is driving the decline of so many amazing and intelligent oceanic mammals.

Stopping macroplastic and microplastic pollution at the source is the most promising method gaining traction, with collection cages and infrastructure at the mouths of rivers showing potential when it comes to reducing the overall flow of plastic.

But nature does have a remarkable ability to regenerate and heal, and aquatic ecosystems can bounce back from our carelessness if we give them time to recover. Even coral reefs suffering from mass coral bleaching are still capable of recovering if we stop treating our oceans like landfills.

Plastic debris hauled off from beaches at Midway Atoll, in the North Pacific Ocean.

Curbing our reliance on plastic would be the most effective method of preventing these patches from increasing in size, and this includes less fishing and trapping of sea animals as well.

That doesn’t necessarily mean you have to learn how to go vegan – but if you’re concerned about ocean plastic pollution, you should try to do your part and reduce plastic use in your life.

Eliminating meat from your diet, including seafood, is also one the best ways to help keep clean water accessible for future generations, and reduce your carbon footprint overall.

What are the five major ocean gyres?

In case you wanted to know more about ocean gyres in general, let’s cover the major ones that collect all this plastic debris.

These five gyres work together to create global oceanic currents, circulating seawater around the planet. As they rotate, they pull in and concentrate all this problematic plastic trash towards their center – and this is where the garbage patches are located.

A map showing the five major ocean gyres within our planet's oceans.
Imagery ©2023 NASA, TerraMetrics, Map data ©2023 Google, INEGI

Here are the five largest ocean gyres:

North Pacific Gyre. The largest of the oceanic gyres, this gyre covers most of the Northern Pacific Ocean in the area between North America and Eurasia.

South Pacific Gyre. Sitting below it’s northern cousin, this gyre is located between Australia and South America, and is ironically considered the largest desert on Earth due to a lack of marine biodiversity.

North Atlantic Gyre. This gyre spans the Atlantic, from the east coast of the US to the west coast of Europe, and from near the equator up to Iceland.

South Atlantic Gyre. Below the North Atlantic Ocean, this gyre is situated between Antarctica, South America and West Africa.

Indian Ocean Gyre. Located in the Indian Ocean, this gyre is composed of the South Equatorial and West Australian Currents between India, Africa, and Australia.

Final thoughts

There’s no doubt that the Great Pacific garbage patch exists due to excessive overfishing, as well as our unsustainable reliance on disposable plastic goods.

Cleaning up our world’s ocean garbage patches is something that needs to be addressed, but cutting it off at the source is an even better solution.

So which solutions do you think are most realistic?

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