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.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch lies in the Pacific Ocean between Hawaii and California. It is the world's largest collection of floating trash, covering an area larger than Texas. The patch was discovered by Charles Moore in 1997. Moore was a sailor who found the garbage as he was bringing his boat home to Los Angeles, California.

The lack of solid ground did not stop a pair of advertising experts from trying to turn the patch into an actual place. They named it the nation of Trash Isles. They even signed up former Vice President Al Gore as its first "citizen."

In 2013, a teenager named Boyan Slat founded an organization called Ocean Cleanup. He started the company with the goal of removing the trash. In 2018, Ocean Cleanup started its $32 million campaign to get rid of the garbage. But first, scientists at Ocean Cleanup wanted to know more about the trash so that they could make a plan to remove it. That year, they took their first hard look at the contents of the garbage patch.

What's Really In The Patch?

The scientists found that the patch was much larger than they had thought. The plastic waste in the patch weighs nearly 87,000 tons, which is about three times heavier than the Statue of Liberty.

They also found that the patch isn't just filled with plastic bags and bottles. In fact, fishing nets account for 46 percent of the trash's weight. Much of the rest is other fishing gear, including ropes, traps, crates and baskets. Also floating in the patch are 1.8 trillion tiny pieces of plastic. Some of these microplastics are so small that they can only be seen with a microscope.

Laurent Lebreton is an ocean scientist at Ocean Cleanup. "I knew there would be a lot of fishing gear," he said, "but 46 percent was unexpectedly high."

Lost and discarded fishing nets drift throughout the oceans. They can get tangled up with whales, seals and turtles. Experts estimate that 100,000 sea animals are strangled, suffocated or injured by plastics every year.

George Leonard is the head scientist at the Ocean Conservancy, an organization that works to protect the oceans. He found it interesting that the scientists discovered so much fishing gear. Some people only focus on pollution from plastic bags and bottles, but "we need to broaden the plastic conversation," he said.

A Sea Of Plastic?

British scientists also studied the garbage patch around the same time. The British study found that plastic pollution in the ocean could triple by 2050. "A major response" is required to prevent plastic from reaching the ocean, the scientists said. The report declared that plastic pollution is one of the biggest environmental threats to the seas.

The British scientists studied 7,000 images of the patch taken from an airplane. They also set up large nets on boats to collect samples of the trash as they sailed through. From the samples, scientists found objects with writing in nine different languages. The writing on one-third of the objects was in Japanese and another third was in Chinese. The country of origin was readable on 41 objects, showing they were manufactured in 12 different nations.

The study also concluded that plastic pollution is "increasing exponentially." Still, experts believe that much of the world's marine debris lies along the coasts, not in the middle of oceans.

Leonard was impressed with the British study. "It's strong science," he said. "But at the same time, in this field, the harder we look, the more plastic we find."

Media Credits

The audio, illustrations, photos, and videos are credited beneath the media asset, except for promotional images, which generally link to another page that contains the media credit. The Rights Holder for media is the person or group credited.

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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