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Great Pacific Garbage Patch

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch was initially discovered in 1997 by oceanographer Charles Moore while sailing home to Southern California after finishing the Transpacific Yacht Race. He stated, “I was confronted, as far as the eye could see, with the sight of plastic…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.”

A three-year study conducted by The Ocean Cleanup Foundation and published in Scientific Reports recently confirmed this find, and stated that the giant mass of garbage is now double the size of Texas. Scientists estimate that this floating island of garbage is 1.6 million kilometers in size, which is 16 times larger than previous estimates.

Great pacific garbage patch image

Where Did All The Garbage Come From?

The recent study was conducted by an international team of scientists, six universities, and an aerial sensor company. During the study, the group surveyed and collected trash using devises to measure the found objects. An aircraft was also used and fitted with sensors to collect 3D scans of the “island.” By the conclusion of the study, the group had collected a total of 1.2 million plastic samples and scanned more than 300 square kilometers.

They found that the huge, swirling pile of trash is made up of many different things. Almost half of it is comprised of “ghost nets,” or discarded fishing nets. Another 20 percent is thought to be debris from the 2011 Japanese tsunami. The majority of the pile contains larger objects, while only 8 percent is estimated to be microplastics (pieces smaller than 5 millimeters in size).

In a statement from The Ocean Cleanup Foundation, Chief Scientist Julia Reisser said that, “We were surprised by the amount of large plastic objects we encountered…We used to think most of the debris consists of small fragments, but this new analysis shines a new light on the scope of the debris.”

The principal research scientist for the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) in Australia, Britta Denise Hardesty, participated in a previous study and found that discarded fishing gear made up a significant amount of marine plastic pollution worldwide. Her study estimated that 640,000 tons of fishing gear is lost to the marine environment each year.

“The Trash Isles”

Because the patch is so large, environmentalists have called on the United Nations to declare the Great Pacific Garbage Patch a country, naming it the “The Trash Isles,” complete with its own passport and currency, called debris. In addition, environmentalists have solicited 200,000 people to become citizens, including celebrities Sir David Attenborough, Chris Hemsworth, and Gal Gadot. The first citizen was former US vice president and environmentalist Al Gore. While done in jest, this move hoped to raise awareness of the ever growing issue in the Pacific.

Can Anything Be Done?

Even though Hardesty’s study had found that fishing gear made up the majority of marine pollution, she stated that, “lt’s not fair to just blame it on the fishermen or the top 20 countries for mismanaging waste…Instead we need to look at the true value and cost of plastics, and factor in the costs of livelihood and tourism.” She went on to conclude that plastic pollution in the ocean is both visible and trackable, helping scientists document it. However, people can help slow it down by recycling and limiting their purchase of plastics and other single-use items. She encourages all to “think about mindful alternatives.”