trash vortex

The Pacific Trash Vortex, Garbage Patches, And Marine Debris Cleanup

The Pacific Trash Vortex, also known as Great Pacific Garbage Patch, is omnipresent and growing.

The Pacific Trash Vortex is a massive collection of marine debris, AKA sea garbage, floating in the Pacific ocean. This patch is thought to be roughly the size of Texas ,according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA).  The problem is so bad that one report predicts that by 2050 there will be more plastics in the world’s oceans than fish.

The debris is stuck in the middle of the circular current between Hawaii and California known as the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre,  a massive area that comprises four major ocean currents.

Though predicted by climatologists, the Pacific Trash Vortex was discovered in 1997 by boat racer and ocean advocate Charles Moore.

And it’s not the only one out there — there are a known five around the world in total. Debris is also contained in what’s called the Western Garbage Patch and the Subtropical Convergence Zone, as seen below.

Image courtesy of the NOAA.

These vortexes are made up largely of microplastics (typically under 5mm in size), which are trapped in the gyres at high quantities: an estimate of six kilos of plastic for every single kilo of natural plankton, and 1.9 million bits per square mile.

To put the scale of the problem in perspective,  the World Economic Forum estimates that in 2050 there will be more plastic than fish in earth’s oceans (source, .pdf).

Misconceptions and truths about “trash islands”

Contrary to some media representation, garbage patches are not islands of trash — in fact, due to the minuscule nature of the debris, they are barely noticeable to the naked eye, according to the NOAA.

Even so, plastic, which is not biodegradable, can be extremely damaging to marine life. For example, albatrosses young and old regularly suffer from the digestion of  a variety of plastics, and sea turtles sometimes mistake plastic bags for jellyfish.

trash vortex albatross
Photo courtesy of the USFWS Headquarters via Flickr.

According to Greenpeace, the plastics also act as “chemical sponges” as they concentrate damaging toxic pollutants. Floating debris can carry marine life outside their habitats, and sinking debris can smother or poison those that dwell beneath.

At least 267 different animal species are known to have suffered from entanglement and ingestion, with hundreds of thousands of sea turtles, whales, and over a million seabirds dying every year.

Responsibility: trash vortex cleanup and prevention

A large majority of the plastic waste comes from land, with coastal pollution the main source of 80% of marine debris, according to

If the patch were more of a mass, as some tend to picture it, cleanup would be much easier — unfortunately, it’s not so simple. The NOAA estimates it would cost somewhere between $5,000 and $20,000 per day — as much as $489 million a year.

trash vortex cleanup
Photo courtesy of the NOAA via Flickr.

In addition, the lack of oceanic property rights means there is little economic incentive for cleanup, according to an article published in the Journal of International Affairs.

And the problem seems to be spreading.  A study released in 2017 by Science Advances, an academic research group, found that trillions of microplastic particles had spread all  the way to the Arctic.

Some companies have responded to the ocean plastic problem by developing initiatives aimed at reducing and recycling ocean plastic. For instance, Adidas plans to recycle ocean plastic and turn it into more than one million pairs of new shoes.


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