Is There Really a “Plastic Island”, or “Garbage Patch” in the Ocean?
There is no visible “plastic island,” or “garbage patch” in the ocean. Instead, large low-density patches of plastic particles are caught in the ocean’s major gyres below the water’s surface.
The idea that there is a visible island of garbage in the ocean is a misunderstanding of the slightly more complicated truth.
That truth being there is no floating island of garbage visible from space, but there are very large low-density patches of plastics and other garbage, caught in the oceans’ major gyres just below the surface of the water, in which plastics, garbage, and microplastics become increasingly concentrated toward the center.
The most notable of these masses is called “the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.”
That truth is potentially worse than the myth of a giant plastic island… As cleaning up a large solid mass of garbage is potentially easier than cleaning large swaths of ocean filled with broken down plastics. Further, marine life is more liable to eat microplastics and smaller bits of plastic than to be impeded by a large solid mass of plastic.
Seventy-nine thousand tons of plastic debris, in the form of 1.8 trillion pieces, now occupy an area three times the size of France in the Pacific Ocean between California and Hawaii…
…The Garbage Patch has been described before. But this new survey estimates that the mass of plastic contained there is four to 16 times larger than previously supposed, and it is continuing to accumulate because of ocean currents and careless humans both onshore and offshore.
– Plastic within the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is ‘increasing exponentially,’ scientists find. Washingtonpost.com citing a study published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Nature.
UPDATE 2018: The excerpt above is from a study published in Nature in 2018. This study has helped to shed light on the nature of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (the most notable of these masses). In summary, 1. the patch is increasing exponentially, 2. most of the mass was large objects, including fishing nets, 3. although only 8% of the mass is microplastics, microplastics accounted for 94% of the pieces floating in the sample area.
Great Pacific Garbage Patch. SciShow makes great videos. This is short, easy to understand, and worth watching!
What is a Gyre?: A Gyre is a vortex of rotating ocean currents. There are five notable gyres corresponding to the layout of the ocean. Learn more about ocean gyres.
The Truth About the Great Pacific Garbage Patch
To restate the above point in terms of the Great Pacific Patch specifically:
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch in the North Pacific Ocean isn’t a singular “plastic island” or “garbage patch” floating above the water that is visible by the naked eye (like some media sometimes insinuates in headlines). Instead, it is just one of a few “large low-density patches of plastic particles (and other marine debris) collected by the ocean’s major currents (gyres), mostly under the surface of the water, and nearly invisible to the naked eye”.
The Great Pacific patch is one of a few masses of this type, in general there is a mass in each of the ocean’s major gyres.
TIP: Garbage Patch = Small Bits of Plastic (Microplastics) Caught in the Ocean’s Major Gyres.
Are Microplastics in Our Water Becoming a Macroproblem?. Before the 90’s it was legal to dump plastic in the ocean, fast forward to 2016 and we have a giant patches of microplastic covering large swaths of the ocean.
TIP: A giant garbage island would be easy to clean up, microplastics actually pose a greater environmental risk and are more difficult to clean up due to their size (they are low-density sparse, often high-area, patches), moving location, and position under the ocean’s surface.
Why do people think there is a garbage island in the ocean? Some early reports of the garbage patch that drew headlines included descriptions suggesting that there were visible islands of garbage. It is likely that someone saw a floating mound of garbage somewhere at some point, maybe even exaggerating the story. Outside this, the story seems to have just gotten misreported (intentionally or not). We have known about this since about 1985 when it was first analyzed by NOAA based on reports by Alaska-based researchers. The VICE video below discusses these rumors a bit.
How Do Gyres Collect Plastic and Other Garbage?
The oceans five major “currents”, called gyres, naturally collect plastic and other garbage, condensing them over time. This creates large patches of loosely-packed, non-biodegradable, plastic particles (mostly below the surface of the water). These plastic particle patches are both hard to see, and hard to clean up. This slightly complex mechanic, and the use of terms like “garbage island” or “plastic island” (which implies something more visual), has led to some confusion as to what is happening in the ocean
- It’s a myth that there is a plastic trash island (a large visible solid mass of garbage floating in the water like an island).
- It’s a fact that there are multiple large, low-density, patches of plastic particles collected by the ocean’s major gyres. They mostly exist below the surface of the water, and are hard to see with the naked eye.
How Many Plastic Islands are There?
There is a “plastic island of garbage” that corresponds with the five major gyres in the oceans. Each gyre collects plastic in mostly broken down form called microplastic (small particles with a diameter of less than 5 mm). Other trash gets caught, but the non-biodegradable plastics are the main issue.
What Do the Garbage Patches Look Like?
The garbage patches span areas of up to 15,000,000 kilometers and are spread out over vast distances, with a density of about 5.1 kilograms per square kilometer of ocean area. There isn’t an even distribution over an area, but varying distributions of microplastics (and sometimes other trash) around the gyres. See the image on this page for a great visual.
Given the low density of garbage, and the sparseness of that density, it is difficult (or in some cases impossible) to see the patches with the naked eye, and the particles are hard to detect with satellites too. Lack of easy visibility has led many to decry the findings as environmentalist propaganda, but finings from NASA and other sources have generally discredited that argument.
Despite a lack of visual evidence, and some exaggerations by the media, samples of ocean water have shown that the non-biodegradable plastic in our oceans is a major problem… that has been escalating out-of-sight since the 80’s.
This is how garbage islands have formed in the last 35 years.
How Was the Garbage Patch Discovered?
The Great Pacific garbage patch was predicted in a 1988 paper published by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) based on results obtained by several Alaska-based researchers between 1985 and 1988 that measured neustonic plastic in the North Pacific Ocean.
From that point, people claimed to have seen patches in the different oceans, but no one was taken seriously including sailor Charles J. Moore and oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer, who coined the “Eastern Garbage Patch” (EGP).
Are the Garbage Patches a Problem?
Most of what you’ll hear about the garbage patch is true, even though the word “island” is misleading. Giant swaths of the ocean being covered in non-biodegradable microplastics has all the negative effects you might imagine. It’s not only hard to clean up, but toxic to living things, and can have a bit of a butterfly effect over time. Here an article pointing out one of the many side effects.
The garbage islands aren’t actual islands. They are large swaths of broken down plastics caught in the ocean’s major gyres.
VICE V. the North Pacific Gyre
After hearing about the floating island of garbage and human-made plastic waste, a film crew from Vice Media went to document the evidence. What they found wasn’t any sort of “floating island”, but rather low-density patches of broken up plastic and plastic particles that had been pushed into one spot from the gyre. This helps to confirm that the plastic part is real, but the island part… not so much.
Garbage Island: An Ocean Full of Plastic (Part 1/3)