The Great Pacific garbage patch, also described as the Pacific trash vortex, is a gyre of marine debris in the central North Pacific Ocean located roughly between 135°W to 155°W and 35°N and 42°N.1 The patch extends over an indeterminate area, with estimates ranging very widely depending on the degree of plastic concentration used to define the affected area.
The patch is characterized by exceptionally high concentrations of pelagic plastics, chemical sludge and other debris that have been trapped by the currents of the North Pacific Gyre.2 Despite its size and density, the patch is not visible from satellite photography, since it consists primarily of suspended particulates in the upper water column. Since plastics break down to even smaller polymers, concentrations of submerged particles are not visible from space, nor do they appear as a continuous debris field. Instead, the patch is defined as an area in which the mass of plastic debris in the upper water column is significantly higher than average.
The Great Pacific garbage patch was predicted in a 1988 paper published by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) of the United States. The prediction was based on results obtained by several Alaska-based researchers between 1985 and 1988 that measured neustonic plastic in the North Pacific Ocean.3 This research found high concentrations of marine debris accumulating in regions governed by ocean currents. Extrapolating from findings in the Sea of Japan, the researchers hypothesized that similar conditions would occur in other parts of the Pacific where prevailing currents were favorable to the creation of relatively stable waters. They specifically indicated the North Pacific Gyre.4
Charles J. Moore, returning home through the North Pacific Gyre after competing in the Transpac sailing race in 1997, came upon an enormous stretch of floating debris. Moore alerted the oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer, who subsequently dubbed the region the "Eastern Garbage Patch" (EGP).5 The area is frequently featured in media reports as an exceptional example of marine pollution.6
The patch is not easily visible because it consists of very small pieces, almost invisible to the naked eye,7 most of its contents are suspended beneath the surface of the ocean,8 and the relatively low density of the plastic debris at, in one scientific study, 5.1 kilograms of plastic per square kilometer of ocean area.9
It is thought that, like other areas of concentrated marine debris in the world's oceans, the Great Pacific garbage patch formed gradually as a result of marine pollution gathered by oceanic currents.12 The garbage patch occupies a large and relatively stationary region of the North Pacific Ocean bound by the North Pacific Gyre (a remote area commonly referred to as the horse latitudes). The gyre's rotational pattern draws in waste material from across the North Pacific Ocean, including coastal waters off North America and Japan. As material is captured in the currents, wind-driven surface currents gradually move floating debris toward the center, trapping it in the region.
There are no strong scientific data concerning the origins of pelagic plastics. The figure that an estimated 80% of the garbage comes from land-based sources and 20% from ships is derived from an unsubstantiated estimate.13 Ship-generated pollution is a source of concern, since a typical 3,000-passenger cruise ship produces over eight tons of solid waste weekly, a major amount of which ends up in the patch, as most of the waste is organic.14(relevance?) Pollutants range in size from abandoned fishing nets to micro-pellets used in abrasive cleaners.15 Currents carry debris from the west coast of North America to the gyre in about six years,16 and debris from the east coast of Asia in a year or less.1718 An international research project led by Dr. Hideshige Takada of Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology studying plastic pellets, or nurdles, from beaches around the world may provide further clues about the origins of pelagic plastic.19
Logically, the land-based sources of pollutants and plastics come from the great rivers from around the world. The Ganges, in India, is an example of a source of major sea pollution (see Pollution of the Ganges). The major rivers of Bangladesh, Nigeria, and other developing nations collectively provide another example of marine-pollution sources. It has been noted that the levels of pollution in and around these rivers constitute a major health hazard to people living and doing business around the water.
Estimates of Size
The size of the patch is unknown, as large items readily visible from a boat deck are uncommon. Most debris consists of small plastic particles suspended at or just below the surface, making it impossible to detect by aircraft or satellite. Instead, the size of the patch is determined by sampling. Estimates of size range from 700,000 square kilometres (270,000 sq mi) to more than 15,000,000 square kilometres (5,800,000 sq mi) (0.41% to 8.1% of the size of the Pacific Ocean), or, in some media reports, up to "twice the size of the continental United States".20 Such estimates, however, are conjectural given the complexities of sampling and the need to assess findings against other areas. Further, although the size of the patch is determined by a higher-than-normal degree of concentration of pelagic debris, there is no standard for determining the boundary between "normal" and "elevated" levels of pollutants to provide a firm estimate of the affected area.
Net-based surveys are less subjective than direct observations but are limited regarding the area that can be sampled (net apertures 1–2 m and ships typically have to slow down to deploy nets, requiring dedicated ship's time). The plastic debris sampled is determined by net mesh size, with similar mesh sizes required to make meaningful comparisons among studies. Floating debris typically is sampled with a neuston or manta trawl net lined with 0.33 mm mesh. Given the very high level of spatial clumping in marine litter, large numbers of net tows are required to adequately characterize the average abundance of litter at sea. Long-term changes in plastic meso-litter have been reported using surface net tows: in the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre in 1999, plastic abundance was 335 000 items/km2 and 5.1 kg/km2, roughly an order of magnitude greater than samples collected in the 1980s. Similar dramatic increases in plastic debris have been reported off Japan. However, caution is needed in interpreting such findings, because of the problems of extreme spatial heterogeneity, and the need to compare samples from equivalent water masses, which is to say that, if an examination of the same parcel of water a week apart is conducted, an order of magnitude change in plastic concentration could be observed.21
In August 2009, the Scripps Institution of Oceanography/Project Kaisei SEAPLEX survey mission of the Gyre found that plastic debris was present in 100 consecutive samples taken at varying depths and net sizes along a 1,700 miles (2,700 km) path through the patch. The survey also confirmed that, while the debris field does contain large pieces, it is on the whole made up of smaller items that increase in concentration toward the Gyre's centre, and these 'confetti-like' pieces are clearly visible just beneath the surface. Although many media and advocacy reports have suggested that the patch extends over an area larger than the continental U.S., recent research sponsored by the National Science Foundation suggests the affected area may be much smaller.222324 Recent data collected from Pacific albatross populations suggest there may be two distinct zones of concentrated debris in the Pacific.25
Photodegradation of plastics
The Great Pacific garbage patch has one of the highest levels known of plastic particulate suspended in the upper water column. As a result, it is one of several oceanic regions where researchers have studied the effects and impact of plastic photodegradation in the neustonic layer of water.26 Unlike organic debris, which biodegrades, the photodegraded plastic disintegrates into ever smaller pieces while remaining a polymer. This process continues down to the molecular level.27
As the plastic flotsam photodegrades into smaller and smaller pieces, it concentrates in the upper water column. As it disintegrates, the plastic ultimately becomes small enough to be ingested by aquatic organisms that reside near the ocean's surface. In this way, plastic may become concentrated in neuston, thereby entering the food chain.
Some plastics decompose within a year of entering the water, leaching potentially toxic chemicals such as bisphenol A, PCBs, and derivatives of polystyrene.28
The process of disintegration means that the plastic particulate in much of the affected region is too small to be seen. In a 2001 study, researchers (including Charles Moore) found concentrations of plastic particles at 334,721 pieces per km2 with a mean mass of 5,114 grams (11.27 lbs) per km2, in the neuston. Assuming each particle of plastic averaged 5 mm x 5 mm x 1 mm, this would amount to only 8 m2 per km2 due to small particulates. Nonetheless, this represents a very high amount with respect to the overall ecology of the neuston. In many of the sampled areas, the overall concentration of plastics was seven times greater than the concentration of zooplankton. Samples collected at deeper points in the water column found much lower concentrations of plastic particles (primarily monofilament fishing line pieces).9 Nevertheless, according to the mentioned estimates, only a very small part of the plastic would be near the surface.
Effect on wildlife
Some of these long-lasting plastics end up in the stomachs of marine birds and animals, and their young,5 including sea turtles and the Black-footed Albatross. Midway Atoll receives substantial amounts of marine debris from the patch. Of the 1.5 million Laysan Albatrosses that inhabit Midway, nearly all are found to have plastic in their digestive system.29 Of the approximately one-third of the chicks that die, many of them are due to being fed plastic from their parents.3031Twenty tons of plastic debris washes up on Midway every year with five tons of that debris being fed to Albatross chicks.32
Besides the particles' danger to wildlife, on the microscopic level the floating debris can absorb organic pollutants from seawater, including PCBs, DDT, and PAHs.33 Aside from toxic effects,34 when ingested, some of these are mistaken by the endocrine system as estradiol, causing hormone disruption in the affected animal.31 These toxin-containing plastic pieces are also eaten by jellyfish, which are then eaten by larger fish.
Many of these fish are then consumed by humans, resulting in their ingestion of toxic chemicals.35 Marine plastics also facilitate the spread of invasive species that attach to floating plastic in one region and drift long distances to colonize other ecosystems.15
On the macroscopic level, the physical size of the plastic kills birds and turtles as the animals' digestion can not break down the plastic inside their stomachs. A second effect of the macroscopic plastic is to make it much more difficult for animals to see and detect their normal sources of food.
Research has shown that this plastic marine debris affects at least 267 species worldwide and a few of the 267 species reside in the North Pacific Gyre.36
Research of cleanup
In April 2008, Richard Sundance Owen, a building contractor and scuba dive instructor, formed the Environmental Cleanup Coalition (ECC) to address the issue of North Pacific pollution. ECC collaborates with other groups to identify methods to safely remove plastic and persistent organic pollutants from the oceans.3738
Project Kaisei is a project to study and clean up the garbage patch launched in March 2009. In August 2009, two project vessels, the New Horizon and the Kaisei, embarked on a voyage to research the patch and determine the feasibility of commercial scale collection and recycling.42
The SEAPLEX expedition, a group of researchers from Scripps Institution of Oceanography, spent 19 days on the ocean in August, 2009 researching the patch. Their primary goal was to describe the abundance and distribution of plastic in the gyre in the most rigorous study to date. Researchers were also looking at the impact of plastic on mesopelagic fish, such as lanternfish.434445 This group utilized a fully capable dedicated oceanographic research vessel, the 170 ft (52 m) long New Horizon.46
In 2012 Miriam C. Goldstein, Marci Rosenberg, and Lanna Cheng wrote:
Plastic pollution in the form of small particles (diameter less than 5 mm) — termed ‘microplastic’ — has been observed in many parts of the world ocean. They are known to interact with biota on the individual level, e.g. through ingestion, but their population-level impacts are largely unknown. One potential mechanism for microplastic-induced alteration of pelagic ecosystems is through the introduction of hard-substrate habitat to ecosystems where it is naturally rare. Here, we show that microplastic concentrations in the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre (NPSG) have increased by two orders of magnitude in the past four decades, and that this increase has released the pelagic insect Halobates sericeus from substrate limitation for oviposition. High concentrations of microplastic in the NPSG resulted in a positive correlation between H. sericeus and microplastic, and an overall increase in H. sericeus egg densities. Predation on H. sericeus eggs and recent hatchlings may facilitate the transfer of energy between pelagic- and substrate-associated assemblages. The dynamics of hard-substrate-associated organisms may be important to understanding the ecological impacts of oceanic microplastic pollution.47
The Goldstein et al. study compared changes in small plastic abundance between 1972-1987 and 1999-2010 by using historical samples from the Scripps Pelagic Invertebrate Collection and data from SEAPLEX, a NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer cruise in 2010, information from the Algalita Marine Research Foundation as well as various published papers.48
At TEDxDelft2012,4950 Dutch Aerospace Engineering student Boyan Slat unveiled a concept for removing large amounts of marine debris from the five oceanic gyres. With his concept called The Ocean Cleanup, he proposes a radical clean-up that would use the surface currents to let the debris drift to specially designed arms and collection platforms. This way the running costs would be virtually zero, and would the operation be so efficient that it may even be profitable. The concept makes use of floating booms, that won’t catch the debris, but divert it. This way by-catch would be avoided, and even the smallest particles would be extracted. According to Boyan Slat's calculations, a gyre could realistically be cleaned up in five years' time, collecting at least 7.25 million tons of plastic combining all gyres.51 He however does note that an ocean-based cleanup is only half the story, and will therefore have to be paired with 'radical plastic pollution prevention methods in order to succeed'.5152
Method, a producer of household products, took the garbage patch as an opportunity and began marketing a dish soap whose container is made partly of recycled ocean plastic. The company sent crews to Hawaiian beaches to recover some of the debris that had washed up.53
The 2012 Algalita/5 Gyres Asia Pacific Expedition, though plagued by severe weather on Leg 2, met the goals and objectives it set out to achieve.
Beginning in the Marshall Islands on May 1, Leg 1 investigated the little-studied Western Pacific garbage patch, arriving in Tokyo three weeks later. During their scheduled layover and crew change, an international scientific symposium was held with Captain Charles Moore as one of the speakers.
Marcus Eriksen led the expedition, collecting samples for the 5 Gyres Institute, Algalita Marine Research Foundation and several other colleagues, including NOAA, SCRIPPS, IPRC and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. Hank Carson was aboard to study colonial communities fouling marine debris, as well as collect samples of plastic pollution for his students and colleagues at University of Hawaii at Hilo. Filmmakers Alex and Tyler Mifflin were aboard to document the journey for a series titled “The Water Brothers”, in which they explore water issues around the world. Belinda Braithwaite, Carolyn Box, Bob Atwater, Valerie Lecour, Michael Brown, Cynthia Matzke, Shanley Mcentee and Kristal Ambrose rounded out the expedition.54
From October 4 to November 9, 2012, the Sea Education Association (SEA) conducted a research expedition to study plastic pollution in the North Pacific gyre. 38 sailors, scientists, ship's crew, and journalists sailed from San Diego, California to Honolulu, Hawaii aboard the SSV Robert C. Seamans, led by Chief Scientist Emelia DeForce and Captain Jason Quilter. A similar research expedition was conducted by SEA in the North Atlantic Ocean in 2010. During the Plastics at SEA 2012 North Pacific Expedition, a total of 118 net tows were conducted and nearly 70,000 pieces of plastic were counted to estimate the density of plastics, map the distribution of plastics in the gyre, and examine the effects of plastic debris on marine life.55
- 1. See the relevant sections below for specific references concerning the discovery and history of the patch. A general overview is provided in Dautel, Susan L. "Transoceanic Trash: International and United States Strategies for the Great Pacific Garbage Patch," 3 Golden Gate U. Envtl. L.J. 181 (2009)
- 2. For this and what follows, see Moore (2004) and Moore (2009), which includes photographs taken from the patch
- 3. Day, Robert H.; Shaw, David G.; Ignell, Steven E. (4). "Quantitative distribution and characteristics of neustonic plastic in the North Pacific Ocean. Final Report to US Department of Commerce, National Marine Fisheries Service, Auke Bay Laboratory. Auke Bay, AK" (PDF). pp. 247–266
- 4. "After entering the ocean, however, neuston plastic is redistributed by currents and winds. For example, plastic entering the ocean in Japan is moved eastward by the Subarctic Current (in Subarctic Water) and the Kuroshio (in Transitional Water, Kawai 1972; Favorite et al. 1976; Nagata et al. 1986). In this way, the plastic is transported from high-density areas to low-density areas. In addition to this eastward movement, Ekman stress from winds tends to move surface waters from the subarctic and the subtropics toward the Transitional Water mass as a whole (see Roden 1970: fig. 5). Because of the convergent nature of this Ekman flow, densities tend to be high in Transitional Water. In addition, the generally convergent nature of water in the North Pacific Central Gyre (Masuzawa 1972) should result in high densities there also." Day, etc... 1988, p. 261 (Emphasis added)
- 5. a. b. Moore, Charles (November 2003). Across the Pacific Ocean, plastics, plastics, everywhere. Natural History Magazine
- 6. Berton, Justin (19 October 2007). "Continent-size toxic stew of plastic trash fouling swath of Pacific Ocean". San Francisco Chronicle (San Francisco: Hearst, published Friday, 19 October). pp. W–8. Retrieved 22 October 2007
- 7. Cecil Adams Why don't we ever see pictures of the floating island of garbage? Straight Dope / Chicago Reader
- 8. Steve Gorman Scientists study huge plastic patch in Pacific Reuters
- 9. a. b. Moore, Charles; Moore, S. L.; Leecaster, M. K.; Weisberg, S. B. (4). "A Comparison of Plastic and Plankton in the North Pacific Central Gyre" (PDF). Marine Pollution Bulletin (2001-12-01) 42 (12): 1297–1300. doi:10.1016/S0025-326X(01)00114-X. PMID 11827116
- 10. Lovett, Richard A. (2 March 2010). "Huge Garbage Patch Found in Atlantic Too". National Geographic News. National Geographic Society.
- 11. Victoria Gill (24 February 2010). "Plastic rubbish blights Atlantic Ocean". BBC. Retrieved 16 March 2010.
- 12. For this and what follows, see David M. Karl, "A Sea of Change: Biogeochemical Variability in the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre," Ecosystems, Vol. 2, No. 3 (May – Jun., 1999), pp. 181–214 and, for gyres generally, Sverdrup HU, Johnson MW, Fleming RH. 1946. The oceans, their physics, chemistry and general biology. New York: Prentice-Hall.
- 13. Postulated in Moore 2004
- 14. Clemmitt, Marcia. "New Rules Sought for 'Floating Cities.'" Saving the Oceans 15.39 (4 Nov 2005): n. pag. CQ Researcher Online. Web. 5 Oct 2009. <http://library.cqpress.com/cqresearcher/document.php?id=cqresrre20051104....
- 15. a. b. Ferris, David (May/June 2009). "Message in a bottle". Sierra (San Francisco: Sierra Club). Retrieved 13 August 2009
- 16. http://www.mindfully.org/Plastic/Ocean/Moore-Trashed-PacificNov03.htm
- 17. Faris, J. and Hart, K. (1994). Seas of Debris: A Summary of the Third International Conference on Marine Debris. N.C. Sea Grant College Program and NOAA
- 18. Garbage Mass Is Growing in the Pacific. National Public Radio. 28 March 2008
- 19. "International Pellet Watch". Laboratory of Organic Geochemistry, Dr. Hideshige Takada. Retrieved 27 May 2009.
- 20. Marks, Kathy (5 February 2008). "The world's rubbish dump". The Independent (London). Retrieved 4 May 2010.
- 21. Ryan, Moore et al (2009)HI
- 22. For a discussion of the problems in determining the exact size based on current sampling techniques, see Peter Ryan, Charles Moore et al., Monitoring the abundance of plastic debris in the marine environment. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 27 July 2009 vol. 364 no. 1526 1999–2012, doi:10.1098/rstb.2008.0207
- 23. http://www.katu.com/outdoors/featured/112901159.html
- 24. "OCEANIC "GARBAGE PATCH" NOT NEARLY AS BIG AS PORTRAYED IN MEDIA", http://oregonstate.edu/ua/ncs/archives/2011/jan/oceanic-%E2%80%9Cgarbage...
- 25. Young LC, Vanderlip C, Duffy DC, Afanasyev V, Shaffer SA (2009) Bringing Home the Trash: Do Colony-Based Differences in Foraging Distribution Lead to Increased Plastic Ingestion in Laysan Albatrosses? PLoS ONE 4(10): e7623.
- 26. Thompson, Richard C.; Olsen, Y; Mitchell, RP; Davis, A; Rowland, SJ; John, AW; McGonigle, D; Russell, AE (7 May 2004). "Lost at Sea: Where Is All the Plastic?,". Science 304 (5672): 843. doi:10.1126/science.1094559. PMID 15131299. Retrieved 19 July 2008.
- 27. For this and what follows, see the references provided at Photodegradation. Also, D.K.A. Barnes et al., Accumulation and fragmentation of plastic debris in global environments, Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 27 July 2009 vol. 364 no.1526, 1985–1998 doi:10.1098/rstb.2008.0205
- 28. Barry, Carolyn (20 August 2009). "Plastic Breaks Down in Ocean, After All – And Fast". National Geographic News. National Geographic Society. Retrieved 30 August 2009.
- 29. Chris Jordan (November 11, 2009). "Midway: Message from the Gyre". Retrieved 2009-11-13.
- 30. "Q&A: Your Midway questions answered". BBC News. March 28, 2008. Retrieved April 5, 2010.
- 31. a. b. Moore, Charles (2 October 2002). Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Santa Barbara News-Press
- 32. Plastic-Filled Albatrosses Are Pollution Canaries in New Doc. Wired. June 29, 2012. Accessed 6-11-13
- 33. Rios, L.M.; Moore, C. and Jones, P.R. (2007). "Persistent organic pollutants carried by Synthetic polymers in the ocean environment". Marine Pollution Bulletin 54 (8): 1230–1237. doi:10.1016/j.marpolbul.2007.03.022. PMID 17532349
- 34. Tanabe, S.; Watanabe, M., Minh, T.B., Kunisue, T., Nakanishi, S., Ono, H. and Tanaka, H. (2004). "PCDDs, PCDFs, and coplanar PCBs in albatross from the North Pacific and Southern Oceans: Levels, patterns, and toxicological implications". Environmental Science & Technology 38 (2): 403–413. doi:10.1021/es034966x
- 35. Rogers, Paul. "'Pacific Garbage Patch' expedition finds plastic, plastic everywhere." The Contra Costa Times [Walnut Creek, CA] 1 Sep 2009: n. pag. Web. 4 Oct 2009. <http://www.contracostatimes.com/search/ ci_13258216?nclick_check=1>.
- 36. http://www.greenpeace.org/international/Global/international/planet-2/re...
- 37. Bradshaw, Kate (29 January 2009). "The Great Garbage Swirl". Maui Time Weekly (Maui: Linear Publishing). Retrieved 26 April 2009
- 38. The Environmental Cleanup Coalition's "Gyre Cleanup" plan
- 39. Yap, Britt (28 August 2008). "A raft made of junk crosses Pacific in 3 months". USA Today. Archived from the original on 30 September 2009. Retrieved 30 September 2009.
- 40. "Raft made of junk bottles crosses Pacific". msnbc. 28 August 2008. Archived from the original on 30 September 2009. Retrieved 30 September 2009.
- 41. Jeavans, Christine (20 August 2008). "Mid-ocean dinner date saves rower". BBC News. Archived from the original on 30 September 2009. Retrieved 30 September 2009.
- 42. Walsh, Bryan (1 August 2009). "Expedition Sets Sail to the Great Plastic Vortex". Time. Retrieved 2 August 2009.
- 43. "SEAPLEX Day 11 Part 1: Midwater Fish « SEAPLEX". Seaplexscience.com. 12 August 2009. Retrieved 28 July 2010.
- 44. Staff Writers. "Scientists Find 'Great Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch.'" Space Daily 2 Sep 2009: n. pag. Gale. Web. 12 Oct 2009
- 45. "GaleNet". Find.galegroup.com. Retrieved 28 July 2010.
- 46. http://shipsked.ucsd.edu/Ships/New_Horizon/specs.php http://sio.ucsd.edu/Expeditions/Seaplex/Science/
- 47. Miriam C. Goldstein, Marci Rosenberg,and Lanna Cheng Increased oceanic microplastic debris enhances oviposition in an endemic pelagic insect Biol. Lett. October 23, 2012 8 5 817-820; published ahead of print May 9, 2012, doi:10.1098/rsbl.2012.0298 1744-957X
- 48. Writers, Staff; Report, Innovations, Plastic trash altering ocean habitats, Scripps study shows, retrieved 2012-10-12
- 49. "How the oceans can clean themselves - Boyan Slat at TEDxDelft". Retrieved 2012-10-24.
- 50. "BOYAN SLAT: THE MARINE LITTER EXTRACTION PROJECT - TEDxDelft". Retrieved 2012-10-24.
- 51. a. b. "Boyan Slat - Marine Litter Extraction (In Depth)". Retrieved 2012-10-24.
- 52. "The Ocean Cleanup". Retrieved 2012-10-24.
- 53. Clean Your Hands and the Pacific, retrieved 2012-10-12
- 54. Dr. Marcus Eriksen, PhD, 2012 Asia Pacific Expedition Report, retrieved 2012-10-12
- 55. Sea Education Association, Plastics at SEA North Pacific Expedition, retrieved 2012-12-09