The Great Pacific Garbage Patch Isn’t What You Think It Is

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch Isn’t What You Think It Is

It’s not all bottles and straws—the patch is mostly abandoned fishing gear.


5 - 12


Biology, Ecology, Conservation, Earth Science, Oceanography

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Article originally published on July 3, 2019, this material has been adapted for classroom use.

There is a huge patch of trash floating in the Pacific Ocean. It is between Hawaii and California. It is called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The floating trash covers a huge area. That area is larger than the state of Texas.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch was discovered in 1997. In 2013, a teenager started a company to clean it up. His name is Boyan Slat. Slat's company is called Ocean Cleanup. The company plans to spend millions of dollars to remove the garbage.

In 2018, the scientists at Ocean Cleanup wanted to know more about the items floating in the patch. They took a close look at the trash. Here is what they found.

What's Really In The Patch?

The patch was much larger than the scientists had thought. It is mostly made of plastics. The plastics weighed about 87,000 tons. That is about three times as heavy as the Statue of Liberty.

Most of the garbage is fishing gear such as ropes and traps. About half of the trash is fishing nets. There are also trillions of tiny pieces of plastic floating in the patch. Some of these can only be seen with a microscope. That is why they are called microplastics.

Plastic can hurt or kill sea animals. Nets that get left behind float through the ocean. Whales and seals can get caught in these nets. Then they are not able to swim or eat.

George Leonard is an ocean scientist. He was surprised at how much fishing gear Ocean Cleanup found. Plastic bags and bottles are not the only types of litter, he said. Fishing gear is a big problem too.

Plastic Is A Big Problem

Scientists in Britain also studied the garbage patch. They took photos of it from the air. They also collected pieces of trash to study.

The scientists said that plastic pollution is a growing problem. It is one of the biggest threats to the seas. They said there could be three times or more plastic by 2050.

Leonard was impressed with the British study. "The harder we look, the more plastic we find," he said.

Media Credits

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Tyson Brown, National Geographic Society
Laura Parker, National Geographic
Production Managers
Gina Borgia, National Geographic Society
Jeanna Sullivan, National Geographic Society
Program Specialists
Sarah Appleton, National Geographic Society, National Geographic Society
Margot Willis, National Geographic Society
André Gabrielli, National Geographic Society
Last Updated

January 22, 2024

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