Great Pacific Garbage Patch

Great Pacific Garbage Patch

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a collection of marine debris in the North Pacific. Marine debris is litter that ends up in the ocean, seas, and other large bodies of water.


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Biology, Ecology, Earth Science, Oceanography

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The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a huge area of marine debris. Marine debris is garbage in the ocean. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is the world's biggest area of marine debris. It is in the North Pacific Ocean.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch stretches from the West Coast of North America to Japan. It is made up of two parts. One is the Western Garbage Patch, near Japan. The other is the Eastern Garbage Patch, between Hawai'i and California.

Strong ocean currents carry marine debris into the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Once there, the trash builds up over time. Plastics are the biggest problem. They do not wear down completely. They only break into smaller and smaller pieces.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is mostly tiny bits of plastic. These small pieces are called microplastics. They cannot always be seen. Often, they just make the water look like a cloudy soup. Larger things, like fishing nets or shoes, are mixed into this soup.

It doesn't get any better beneath the surface of the water. The seafloor under the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is an underwater garbage heap. Over time, most marine debris sinks to the bottom.

Marine Debris Litters the Ocean

A lot of the debris in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch comes from fishing boats. Some also comes from distant cities and towns.

Plastics are the most common kind of marine debris. Most of this debris comes from plastic bags, bottle caps, plastic water bottles and Styrofoam cups. The sun breaks these plastics into smaller and smaller pieces. Even if they can't be seen, they are still there.

Marine debris can be very harmful to marine life. For example, turtles often mistake plastic bags for jellies, their favorite food. Albatrosses mistake plastic pellets for fish eggs. They then feed the pellets to their chicks. Often, the chicks die.

Seals are also in danger. They can get tangled in plastic fishing nets. Seals often drown in these nets.

Marine debris is affecting the entire food chain. For example, algae are underwater plants. Plankton are tiny critters that eat algae to survive. Plankton get eaten by other animals, like whales. But microplastics stop sunlight from reaching underwater algae. Without sunlight, the algae won't grow and spread. Without algae, plankton won't have enough food. And without plankton, whales won't have any food either.

Plastics also contain harmful pollutants. These dangerous chemicals are poisoning the water. They are also making fish and marine mammals, such as whales and seals, very sick.

What to do About the Patch

Cleaning up marine debris is not easy. Many microplastics are the same size as small sea animals. Nets that can scoop up garbage would catch these animals too. In any case, the ocean is just too big to clean. Scientists say it would take one year for 67 ships to clean up just a tiny part of the North Pacific Ocean. They say the best answer is to stop throwing away so much plastic.

Fast Fact

Quotable Captain
"So on the way back to our home port in Long Beach, California, we decided to take a shortcut through the gyre, which few seafarers ever cross. Fishermen shun it because its waters lack the nutrients to support an abundant catch. Sailors dodge it because it lacks the wind to propel their sailboats.

"Yet as I gazed from the deck at the surface of what ought to have been a pristine ocean, I was confronted, as far as the eye could see, with the sight of plastic.

"It seemed unbelievable, but I never found a clear spot. In the week it took to cross the subtropical high, no matter what time of day I looked, plastic debris was floating everywhere: bottles, bottle caps, wrappers, fragments. Months later, after I discussed what I had seen with the oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer, perhaps the world's leading expert on flotsam, he began referring to the area as the 'eastern garbage patch.'"

Fast Fact

Strange Cargo
When ships are caught in storms, they often lose cargo to the oceans. The following are just a few of the strange items that have washed up on shores:

  • In 1990, five shipping containers of Nike sneakers and work boots were lost to the Pacific in a storm. People in Washington and Oregon snatched up the shoes on shore, holding swap meets to find matched pairs to wear or sell.
  • In 1992, rubber duckies floated in the Pacific when a ship lost tens of thousands of bathtub toys. The ducks were accompanied by turtles, beavers, and frogs.
  • In 1994, a ship lost 34,000 pieces of hockey gear, including gloves, chest protectors, and shin guards.

Fast Fact

Worldwide Garbage Patches
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is not the only marine trash vortex—it’s just the biggest. The Atlantic and Indian Oceans both have trash vortexes. Even shipping routes in smaller bodies of water, such as the North Sea, are developing garbage patches.

Media Credits

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Jeannie Evers, Emdash Editing, Emdash Editing
National Geographic Society
Last Updated

April 10, 2024

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