Great Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch – Facts & FAQ

by Robert Cheney

in Ocean Gyres

What is the Great Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch?
There are 5 major ocean gyres, of which the North Pacific Gyre is the  largest. Ocean garbage accumulates in these gyres. The largest and most studied is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch which resides in the North Pacific Gyre.

Where is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch located?
In the North Pacific Gyre about a 1,000 miles north of Hawaii.

How big is the great pacific garbage patch?
About twice as big as the USA.

Is it dense enough to walk on?
Hardly. Barely noticeable as the trash particles are very small.

How deep does the garbage patch go?
300 feet or so but that number will likely change as more research is done.

How dense is the Pacific Garbage Patch compared to the rest of the ocean?
It is about 20x the density compared to the global average.

What type of garbage is in the patch?
Tiny bits of plastic smaller than a dime make up the bulk of it.

Why just plastic?
Plastic is very durable and doesn’t degrade for centuries so it survives where other items like wood would have long since biodegraded.

What is plastic made of?
Fossil fuels mainly and currently with natural gas being cheaper than oil, much of it is made from it.

If plastic made from natural petroleum products, then why doesn’t it just break down like every other naturally occurring compound?
It does photodegrade whereby the sun breaks it down merely into smaller pieces but it doesn’t biodegrade easily  into its base compounds. It does not break down easily because of the way its carbon atoms are bonded as explained in more detail here.

Can you see the  Great Pacific Garbage Patch on Google Earth?
No. Contrary to what Charles Moore noticed upon his discovery of the garbage patch, the low density of the patch and the small size of the particles don’t allow for much of a visual inspection, so a picture of it would yield nothing much noticeable but water.

When was the Great Pacific Garbage Patch discovered?
In 1988, a paper was published by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration  indicating the probable existence of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch based upon the findings a few years earlier by scientists who noticed high concentrations of marine garbage wherever certain ocean currents prevailed.
In 1997 Charles Moore, a racing boat captain, was sailing across the North Pacific Gyre after finishing a Los Angeles to Hawaii sailing race when he noticed all the marine garbage around him. He wrote several articles documenting his find, which caused worldwide media interest. It was soon dubbed the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

So, if it is so spread out and the particles of trash so small, how do we know it even exists?
Trawlers using nets (shown below) pull up garbage at all points in the patch.

Garbage Patch Net

Reeling in a net in the in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch

Will the Great Pacific Garbage Patch along with the other garbage patches eventually spell the end of marine ocean life?
No one knows for sure. It could cause cause harm or nature could simply adjust to this new environment. Organisms might evolve that can successfully break down plastics and the problem could resolve itself.

Have there been any efforts to try to clean up these garbage patches?
It’s just not practical or realistic but here is 1 solution proposed:

Read more about this idea here.

An excerpt from their feasibility study:

The Ocean Cleanup Array is estimated to be 33 times
cheaper than conventional cleanup proposals per extracted
mass of plastics. In order to extract 70 million
kg (or 42 percent) of garbage from the North Pacific Gyre
over 10 years, we calculated a total cost of 317 million
In the calculations, a limited lifetime of 10 years is applied
instead of a general economic lifetime (for most
equipment 20 years). This is because projections indicate
the mean amount of plastic mass will decrease with time.
Thus, the average mass of plastic that will be collected
per year will likely be lower than what has been calculated
using the 10-year deployment time. As expected
with the passive cleanup concept, capital expenditures
outweigh the operating expenditures. The total annual
estimated operating expenditures is estimated at five
million euro. 1

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