What is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch?

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What is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch?

It is an area in the North Pacific Ocean where vast amounts of marine litter is caught up in oceanic currents. Much of this litter is microscopic pieces of plastic. These currents accumulate waste floating in the ocean. 

The area is an oceanic desert, filled with tiny phytoplankton but few big fish or mammals. Due to its lack of large fish and gentle breezes, fishermen and  sailors rarely travel through the gyre.

A report by the United Nations Environment Programme (2006) stated that in the Central Pacific, there are up to 6 pounds of marine litter to every pound of plankton.


The year that Captain Charles Moore discovered the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. He is an American yacht-racer who was sailing home across the North Pacific from a competition in Hawaii, USA.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch had been predicted as early as the late 1980s  

  Watch Charles Moore explain his discovery  

Captain Moore went on to establish The Algalita Marine Research Foundation to raise awareness of the problem and find ways to restrict its growth.

What is a gyre?

A slowly moving spiral of oceanic currents created by a high-pressure system of air currents.

This forms a place for ocean debris to collect. Plastic is then carried into stable circular currents, or gyres like ocean ring-roads.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is estimated to be bigger than the size of the State of Texas.

Image of the State of Texas

There are 5 main oceanic gyres: 

Map of the five main gyres
Source: Wikimedia Commons

- North Pacific Ocean
- South Pacific Ocean
- North Atlantic Ocean
- South Atlantic Ocean
- Indian Ocean

There are also several smaller gyres in Alaska and Antarctica.


The number of pieces of plastic estimated by the United Nations Environment Programme in 2006 to be floating in every square mile of ocean. 

 Read summary of the UNEP 2006 report

Watch interview with Sylvia Earle

"In the last 25 years, I haven't been diving anywhere, even 2 miles under the sea, without seeing some form of trash, a lot of it plastic"

 Watch our interview with celebrated oceanographer
Dr Sylvia Earle, discussing the importance of the world's oceans and the growing problem of plastic pollution

Plastic's legacy

Almost all pieces of plastic that has ever been created still exists, except for a small amount that has been incinerated.

As plastic does not biodegrade it is unable to be broken down into its constituent elements by natural processes. 

If plastic ends up trapped in an ocean gyre, it breaks down over time by sunlight and wave action, to become smaller and smaller pieces of plastic, eventually microscopic in size.

Plastic nurdles on a coastline
Source: Sustainable Coastlines

Everyday plastic

Plastics have become an integral part of our daily lives with virtually everything we do and much of the food and drink we consume involving the use of plastics in some form or other. It has become one of the defining materials of the last 60 years.

Plastic rubbish bagPlastic rubbish bag

As a result plastic makes up an increasing proportion of our household waste today.

We produce and use 20 times more plastic today than we did 50 years ago. 

86 Kgs

Estimated amount of plastic thrown out per household each year in UK.
Source: WRAP

 UK household waste statistics

 Find out which materials can be recycled in UK

Several of Hawaii's beaches are covered in plastic rubbish washed-up from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

Hawaii is the world's most isolated island-chain. But there are enormous quantities of plastic debris on many beaches, and the plastic is breaking-down into smaller and smaller fragments the size of sand granules, making it impossible to remove.

 Watch Simon Reeve discovering plastic pollution on the beaches of Hawaii (BBC)

What are nurdles?

Nurdles are the plastic pellets used in plastic manufacturing. 

If these remain in the ocean, they can accumulate toxins and eventually work their way into the food chain as marine animals digest these thinking they are food.


Nurdles washed up in LA, USA
Source: Paul L. Nettles

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  • Brianna Munson said
  • 3rd August, 2010 at 4:15pm

Ocean Voyage Institute is also making a HUGE effort to clean up these areas. They are currently raising funds to go the North Pacific Gyre with a barge and collect the plastic and trash that has accumulated, as well as carry out research on environmentally friendly ways to dispose of it. 

  • TashaSTEELE35 said
  • 24th September, 2010 at 2:40pm

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