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What is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is considered by some scientists to be a misnomer for the floating pile of garbage approximately the size of Texas that can be found between Oregon and the Hawaiian Islands, since it suggests that the epic amount of garbage may be manageable. Whatever it is called, the garbage represents an environmental disaster for the world's oceans, and it is often used to illustrate the need for conservation policies which take the ocean into account. When it was sampled in 2001, it yielded 6 pounds (2.7 kilograms) of plastic for 1 pound (0.45 kilogram) of plankton in the water.

The garbage patch formed and continues to exist because of ocean currents. The patch is not actually static in position, sometimes drifting into landmasses that have begun to resemble landfills. It moves with the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, a high pressure zone of air that forces ocean surface currents to move in a slowly clockwise pattern, creating a whirlpool that sucks garbage from other parts of the ocean into the gyre. The high pressure zone is extremely stable, as it is caused by hot air from the equator cooling as it moves northwards. There are several such gyres around the world, and they are traditionally avoided by sailors and fishermen because they are devoid of wind and marine organisms.

Jellyfish are threatened by the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
Jellyfish are threatened by the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

The traditional avoidance of the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre meant that the garbage slowly collecting there had accumulated immense volume by the time it began to be recognized. Most of the debris in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is made from plastic, which does not biodegrade. Organic material and debris from other sources will eventually break down, but plastics do not, although they do break into smaller and smaller pieces. Greenpeace estimated that approximately 10% of the plastics manufactured every year ultimately end up in this part of the ocean.

Ocean currents led to the formation of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
Ocean currents led to the formation of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

The environmental risks posed by the Great Pacific Garbage Patch are manifold. To begin with, the area supports minimal marine life, because the garbage patch restricts the limited area of water that photosynthetic organisms can live in. Other marine life, including birds, mammals, fish, and jellyfish, also suffer because they mistake the garbage for food. The garbage also carries a hidden payload: oily toxins that have accumulated in the plastic floating on the surface of the water. These toxins appear to be absorbed and concentrated by the plastics, which are in turn eaten by unwitting animals.

Public awareness about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch was increased in 2006, when a number of feature news articles on the subject were published. Some scientists fear that increased knowledge about the issue may be coming too late, as cleanup may be impossible. The issue does highlight the growing problem of garbage in the world's oceans, and it is hoped that awareness will drive consumers to reduce the amount of garbage they generate, as well as spurring international cooperation to address the problem.

Frequently Asked Questions

What exactly is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch?

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP) is a vast area in the North Pacific Ocean where marine debris, predominantly plastic, has accumulated due to ocean currents known as gyres. It's not a visible island of trash, but a diffuse soup of microplastics, fishing nets, and other debris. The GPGP covers an estimated surface area of 1.6 million square kilometers, an area twice the size of Texas, according to The Ocean Cleanup.

How does the garbage accumulate in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch?

Debris accumulates in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch due to the North Pacific Gyre, a large system of circulating ocean currents. These currents draw in debris from coastal waters and converge in a central location, trapping the waste. The gyre's rotational pattern ensures that the debris remains relatively stationary and continues to collect more material over time.

What types of waste are found in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch?

The majority of waste in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is plastic, with items ranging from large abandoned fishing nets to microplastics less than 5mm in size. These plastics come from various sources, including consumer products, packaging, and fishing industry waste. The patch also contains other debris like glass, metal, and rubber, but these are far less prevalent.

Why is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch harmful to marine life?

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch poses significant risks to marine life. Animals can become entangled in larger debris, leading to injury or death. Ingestion of plastics can cause internal blockages or starvation as stomachs fill with indigestible material. Moreover, toxic substances leach from plastics into the water and bioaccumulate in the food chain, affecting even apex predators and potentially human health.

Can the Great Pacific Garbage Patch be cleaned up?

Cleaning up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is challenging due to its size and the nature of the debris. However, organizations like The Ocean Cleanup are developing technologies to remove plastics, focusing on larger items and microplastics. Complete cleanup is a long-term goal that will require international cooperation, continued innovation, and significant reduction in plastic waste at the source.

What can individuals do to help reduce the Great Pacific Garbage Patch?

Individuals can contribute to reducing the Great Pacific Garbage Patch by minimizing their use of single-use plastics, participating in local beach cleanups, and supporting legislation that tackles plastic pollution. Recycling properly and supporting companies that use sustainable packaging can also make a difference. Educating others about the issue raises awareness and encourages collective action towards a cleaner ocean.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a AllThingsNature researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Learn more...
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a AllThingsNature researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Learn more...

Discussion Comments


I find it scary that the idea of this garbage patch doesn't shock the readers of this article. Not only is the garbage patch spoken of in this article real, but it is also not the only one. This patch is connected to another large mass between Japan and Hawaii, and there is another prominent one in the Atlantic.

Several activist groups have been working very hard to find ways to dispose of this trash, however their efforts don't seem to be making much of an effort as the trash is constantly replaced by more trash. In addition to this, the floating mass of junk is over a thousand miles away from the US, meaning that it takes a significant amount of fuel to even get there, and much more to bring heaping mounds of trash back to land.

The evidence of these masses can be seen on any environmental protection website, such as greenpeace or green planet, as well as by the US Environmental Protection Agency.

I sincerely hope that the posts I have read today are just old, and that everyone understands the reality of what polluting our Earth can do. Regardless of whose fault this may or may not be, it is a problem that has been building for decades and one that doesn't go away on its own.


How does a highlight on environmental pollution in the world's oceans become a debate on america vs the world? Goes to show that our priorities are definitely at the wrong end. America, India, Africa: whichever, whatever. We are all contributing to the massacre of the earth. It may not be in your or my lifetimes, but soon there will be no america or no iraq to argue about the way we are carrying on.

Away with politics! Make a pledge to stop using plastics! Recycle! Every little bit counts, even if you don't think so.


If you actually think about it, it really doesn't matter who started it. what matters is that it is there now and it's troublesome. We need to work on getting rid of it, not blaming people or nations.


This post is incredibly misleading. The amount of plastic or other waste found in the gyre is still a fraction of what we find even miles from land.

Ratios comparing the amount of plastic to plankton need to mention that plankton is incredibly sparse out in the middle of the open ocean. Your post fails to mention how many hours a ship would need to trawl in order to scoop up those six pounds of plastic in the supposed "Great Pacific Garbage Patch" region.


its ironic how all of you choose to blame americans when everyone in the world pollutes, not only america. if you don't like our american lifestyle. then don't emulate what we do. stop copying our ways. be an example.


Yes, indeed – anything that is bad is obviously America’s fault. We caused every earthquake, tornado, hurricane and mudslide that ever happened. In fact, it’s our fault that fire is hot.

We are the cause of every war and conflict. Even before we were a country, we caused things to happen in bad ways. Isn't it awesome?

So, next time you stub your little toe or get a parking ticket remember not to feel bad because it's America's fault. I have to go now, have to load my legal firearm, get into my convertible with my blond girlfriend and pay less than two Euros for a gallon of gas.


actually, if you have seen a picture, it is closer to asia.


Why can't we use whaling ships to haul the trash back to land where it can be ground up (recycled) and turned into something less crappy? any fishing vessel would do. they can look at it as job security, because if they don't clean the oceans, there won't be any fish left.


I remember going through this area many times when I was in the Navy. I never noticed garbage there or anywhere else except in port in some of the poorer countries. A lot of it probably floats out to sea.


i think it is mostly America's fault. They are the closest to it and people keep saying "to stop blaming everything wrong with the world" but i think that it is their fault.

They are the ones who kept killing Iraqis and Iranians just to "stop the weapons of mass destruction". Well okay then show them Iraq. Come on stop hiding them. hand them over. Oh that's right, America just wanted to get all the oil, and it has been proved that Iraq didn't actually have any weapons. America's the fault of the world.


In an age when we spend billions of dollars on weapons and our elected officials see no need to change this, the garbage patch and all other global threatening climate and environmental disasters will never be addressed properly.

Until we see ourselves not as individuals and nations, but as a global community, with a responsibility to maintain our planet's future, these issues will remain as problems discussed in the news and in committees.

Every individual on the planet can make choices that are better for the environment. Each day we, as the biggest polluters, can decide to reduce our impact, from walking to our destinations, reducing waste, and recycling, to pushing for industry and commerce to become responsible for the waste that they create through over packaging and toxic emissions.

The technologies that exist today can make a huge difference to our environmental future, but we must choose to make them happen. Too long have the rich and powerful decided for us, only to become richer and more powerful, leaving the rest of the world to suffer for it. Raise your voice and say "No More!"


america is being blamed for the garbage patch because it is closest to us. no were not fully responsible and instead of cleaning it up we just blame each other. it's not america that messed up. the entire world is messed up. exampled: WW1 and WW2. soon we'll just blow up everything.


For those of you interested in seeing video of the garbage swirl, Faban Cousteau was a guest on the Oprah show on April 22, 2009. He brought a video of the garbage patch as part of the discussion on the day's topic "Earth Day". Scary!


No one is blaming just the U.S. for the garbage patch. The garbage accumulates from all over the world, swirling and being passed around by ocean currents until they reach the great pacific garbage patch. There are other garbage patches in just about all the oceans but the one in the pacific is the biggest. Therefore, that one is focused on more. The reason that it is not spotted on google earth or that it is not photographed is because it is not one whole mass. The patch is made up tons of garbage but most of it has been broken to small pieces, it is better understood as a thick soup.


i agree with anon15487...although i don't question if it exists or not, i think that if the people of the world saw the evidence of the great pacific garbage patch, it would scare countless numbers into recycling, disposing of trash properly, and finding ways to reduce their ecological footprints! the very thought of this huge island of floating garbage is quite horrifying!


I'm sure that something like this is real, but why is it not visible on google maps? why has no one ever visited this garbage heap? why is there no photographic/videographic evidence of it? are we too scared to go? what's the deal???


I am most intrigued by this garbage patch. It is so interesting that there can exist, in the middle of the ocean, a deposit for our rubbish. We should probably try and breed a type of micro-organism that feeds off plastics, that could be deployed in the area to consume or break down the rubbish. This would find use on landfills as well (on the land). The problem is, the complex polymer structures of plastics are very inorganic and difficult to consume. We must trust our Russian and Taiwanese scientists to continue to develop the micro-organisms, while we can build the boats that will deliver them to the garbage patch. Afterwards, maybe we could split the profits with them or share the prizes that may come. In any case, our foreign relations would improve. The US, Taiwan and Russia will surely strengthen their ties and realize that by introducing micro-organisms into the Pacific Garbage Gyre, there will emerge a new age in international diplomacy and trade relations.


The world indeed should stop blaming America for everything wrong with the world. With roughly 5% of the world's population, we make up 22% of the world's productivity while using 25% of the planet's total energy output. Knowing that energy use roughly mirrors GNP and assuming GNP roughly mirrors share of garbage output, and an argument could be made that we actually produce more non-organic garbage than people living in the third world with no access to goods packaged in plastic, we produce garbage at more than six times the average rate of the rest of the world combined.

Lest we get cocky, our American energy consumption level of 11.4 kW per person is almost twice that of Japan and Germany with 6 kW per person. In developing countries such as India the per person energy use is closer to 0.7 kW. Bangladesh has the lowest consumption with 0.2 kW per person.

Using the numbers as benchmarks, it's reasonable to assume we Americans produce twice as much garbage per capita as the Germans and Japanese, and almost 60 times as much as the folks in Bangladesh. And, again, it's likely a higher percentage of ours is inorganic because that's how we live. So, no, we Americans shouldn't be blamed for everything wrong with the world... only for our fair share.

Based on those numbers, by the way, it doesn't seem like we're very good stewards. 25% of consumption should result in at least 25% of total productivity, and more if we're really smarter than the average bear.


hmm...this is a terrible problem, that i think is hard for many to comprehend the scope of. another great argument for recycling and against littering. come on people!!! and, no, i don't think the great pacific garbage patch is all arnold schwarzenegger and president bush's fault either. i think the world should stop blaming America for everything wrong with the world!


i think that people should remove it and arnold Schwarzenegger or the president doesn't care for the people they know its polluting the world they should of not let people do that its wrong people need to take better care of the environment.


with all of the philanthropist today has it been suggested that someone look into some sort of subsidy to tow a floating garbage scow out there and work on collecting the garbage from the sea?

I know it seems impractical due to the size but how else is it going to be cleaned up?

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    • Jellyfish are threatened by the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
      By: vilainecrevette
      Jellyfish are threatened by the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
    • Ocean currents led to the formation of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
      By: designua
      Ocean currents led to the formation of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.