The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, an accumulated mass of trash in the ocean, is 16 times bigger than we once thought—and it's not getting smaller.
According to research published today in , the giant mass may be up to 46 percent fishing nets as well. The findings have big implications for marine life, as plastic particles in the patch of waste can break down and contaminate the ocean's food chain.
Though often thought of as a mass of plastic, the researchers also reported glass, wood, rubber, tar, and other materials in the Garbage Patch. A large portion of the trash appeared to be refuse from the commercial fishing industry.
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is an accumulation of—you guessed it—trash that moves into a cyclic current of ocean running roughly between California and Japan, surrounding the Hawaiian islands. Due to the nature of the ocean current, or gyre, trash flows into the area, but it never moves out. Over time, the process has accumulated into a massive "colony" of garbage. The massive accumulation of human litter was first discovered in the 1980s, and it has continued to grow ever since.
The study reports that 352 million tons of trash have accumulated in the patch. Researchers from The Ocean Cleanup Foundation and other institutions counted trash within the patch, sorting it by size. Data from aerial flyovers of the patch in a C-130 Hercules helped generate more accurate estimates of its total mass and volume. The researchers also believe there may be even more garbage hiding below the surface of the ocean.
One researcher—Jennifer Brandon, a Price Postdoctoral Fellow at Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, thinks their figures may be a bit off, partly by sampling that favors large debris over smaller debris. The nets used 0.5 cm mesh—which is just above the size that a vast majority of the debris in the patch is expected to be. "The fact that they found 1.7 trillion pieces smaller than the mesh size of their nets shows just how abundant microplastics are," Brandon says. The researchers also built the sample out of the densest region of the patch, which could drive up the figures.
"It's well known by physical oceanographers as a convergence zone, a gyre within a gyre as they call it," Brandon, who was not involved in the study, says. "So to then extrapolate those high mass densities to their larger Garbage Patch and say they found mass numbers 4-16 times higher than previously reported is incorrect. Also, one reason their mass numbers are so high is that they were sampling with really coarse mesh net, thus missing a lot of the microdebris, and using aerial surveys, thus looking for the megadebris."
In the future, satellite data could be used to refine estimates for the size of the patch and measure how much more trash it accumulates every year. One thing is clear, however—the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a big problem that is only getting bigger.