What Is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch?

What is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch?

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, also known as the Pacific Trash Vortex or the Eastern Garbage Patch, is a massive amount of floating trash in the north central Pacific Ocean that is rumored to be twice the size of the state of Texas. Specifically, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is composed of mostly plastic waste that is held suspended near or on the surface of the Pacific Ocean by currents.

The Patch gained notoriety when it was “discovered” by Charles Moore, an ocean researcher and sea captain who may have been the first to sail through it and document his findings. Charles Moore was returning to his home in California from a sailing race when he found himself mired in a massive patch of floating garbage. Since Moore’s discovery, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch has been a major piece of the marine pollution puzzle, often cited in reports about ocean pollution. The Patch was recently featured on Oprah, and though scientists and environmentalists have known about its existence since the late 1980s, it is likely that most Americans had no idea that sitting just to the west of their country was a giant pile of trash floating in the Pacific. Since Oprah’s discussion about the Pacific Trash Vortex, it has become a popular web search term and has appeared more often in the news.

Charles Moore determined that much of the waste is in the form of “tiny plastic chips”, and postulated that the forces of currents, waves and sun wear down larger pieces of plastic and convert them into tiny fragments which are even more dangerous to wildlife because of their easy to swallow size. Moore also discovered that these tiny chips of plastic outnumber naturally occuring plankton by a ratio as high as six to one.

The existence of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch was predicted by oceanographers and environmentalists as early as 1985. Researchers looking into concentrations of trash found in places like Alaska and the Sea of Japan proposed that somewhere in the north Pacific there must be an even larger concentration of plastic and trash that was “feeding” the pollution found in other places. Once Charles Moore discovered material evidence of the Trash Vortex, he immediately reported to marine biologists and oceanographers (like Curtis Ebbesmeyer) who began to document the Eastern Garbage Patch, taking pictures and trying to determine its source.

While it is not the only area of concentrated marine debris in the world’s oceans, the Eastern Garbage Patch is the most notorious and probably the largest. And much like those other ocean based garbage piles, the Pacific Trash Vortex is believed to have formed over time as a result of marine pollution gathered into a mass by the action of oceanic currents.

The garbage patch occupies a mostly stationary region of the North Pacific Ocean bound by the “horse latitudes”. The rotational pattern created by wind and current conditions in the North Pacific Gyre sucks up waste material from across the entirety of the North Pacific, including the coastal waters off North America and Japan, and push this debris towards the center of the current zone. As material is captured in the currents, wind-driven surface currents gradually trap floating debris in the region.

The actual size of the Patch is unknown, but estimates of its size range from 700,000 square kilometers to more than 15 million square kilometers — to put this in perspective, that would mean that the Patch takes up between 0.4% and 8% of the size of the entire Pacific Ocean. Oceanographers suggest that the area probably consists of well over 100 million tons of plastic and other waste products.

Adding to the hype surrounding the Eastern Garbage Patch, a group of conservationists and scientists will soon launch a mission to map and run tests on sections of the floating garbage dump. The mission will depart from San Francisco sometime in June with the express purpose of exploring and learning more about the constantly shifting patch of plastic waste and other pollutants. Estimates suggest the Patch is made up of six million tons of discarded plastic alone.

Members of the expedition will be the first to attempt to capture a portion of the Patch and recycle the waste into a monument to “throwaway living” to raise awareness of the problem of ocean pollution. This massive toxic soup of waste went undiscovered until the late 1990s, because of the geography surrounding the majority of the Patch. Sailors tend to avoid oceanic gyres because of the constant presence of high pressure systems (what sailors call “doldrums”) which lack normal wind and currents.

Hopefully the expedition into the heart of the Eastern Garbage Patch will eliminate some of the mystery surrounding the waste vortex — what size is it? what is it composed of? what is its impact on the local ecology? — and lead ecologists and scientists to think of a potential solution.