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September 9, 2019

3 misconceptions about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch

Plastic is especially pernicious because it never fully disintegrates.
OCEANA / Enrique Talledo


The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a well-publicized but little-understood phenomenon. Its name conjures up images of a floating landfill, with some reports claiming that this “trash vortex” is twice the size of Texas. These characterizations aren’t entirely accurate, but the reality is no less grim.

So what exactly is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch? Known more accurately as the North Pacific Subtropical High, it’s an area where high concentrations of rubbish get sucked into the center of what’s essentially an inverted whirlpool, known as an ocean gyre. This specific patch is located between California and Hawaii, but more patches can be found throughout the world’s four other ocean gyres (including another one in the Pacific, between Hawaii and Japan, called the Western Garbage Patch).

Considering that a garbage truck’s worth of plastic enters the ocean every minute, and never fully disappears, it’s more vital than ever to separate fact from fiction when discussing marine litter. Here are three common misconceptions about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and some steps that can be taken to remedy the problem:

Myth #1: The Great Pacific Garbage Patch can be seen from space.

Despite its name indicating otherwise, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch isn’t one giant mass of trash, nor is it a floating island. Barely 1 percent of marine plastics are found floating at or near the ocean surface. There is now, on average, an estimated 70 kilograms of plastic in each square kilometer of seafloor.

These individual pieces of plastic are also smaller than one might expect. While some of the debris is large and visible – think plastic bottles, children’s toys and toothbrushes – much of it is microplastics, with lots of open water in between. “Because microplastics are smaller than a pencil eraser, they are not immediately noticeable to the naked eye,” the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) writes on its website. “It’s more like pepper flakes swirling in a soup than something you can skim off the surface.” These tiny bits of broken-down plastics are pervasive and easily mistaken for food by marine animals.

Myth #2: It’s twice the size of Texas.

It’s difficult to estimate a garbage patch’s precise size or boundaries because they’re constantly shifting. Natural forces like winds and ocean currents can push and pull the debris into new directions, including up and down the water column. In other words, while the surface of the patch could span an area that’s double the size of Texas, this measurement doesn’t necessarily paint an accurate or total picture of the problem. So while a number of efforts focus on removing plastic near the surface, the true problem lurks in the deep: 94 percent of the ocean’s plastic can be found on the seafloor.

Myth #3: Ocean cleanups can solve the garbage patch problem.

Because of the complex forces of nature at work and the miniscule size of microplastics, ocean cleanups are not a feasible solution. According to NOAA, it would take 67 ships an entire year to clean up less than one percent of the North Pacific Ocean. On top of that, current technologies may cause harm to marine life, scooping them up along with the trash they attempt to target. The other issue is that ocean cleanups fail to get to the core of the problem. What happens to plastic debris after it’s collected? It certainly doesn’t disappear.

Recycling can’t solve this crisis, either. Only 9 percent of all plastic waste every produced has been recycled. That’s why Oceana’s campaigns encourage companies to offer plastic-free alternatives and persuade governments to pass legislation limiting single-use plastics. Proactive solutions – not reactive ones – will be the key to cleaning up our oceans once and for all. It’s time we disprove the myths and save our oceans from the plastic pollution crisis, before it’s too late.

For more information on Oceana’s work to prevent plastic pollution, visit our plastics campaign page.