A massive patch of trash floating in the middle of the Pacific around halfway between California and Hawaii is four times larger than originally thought, and growing in size exponentially.
This is the conclusion from a three-year survey of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP), in which researchers mapped the entire region in the most detailed analysis of it to date. They found that the GPGP is made up of around 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic, weighing in at roughly 80,000 tonnes (88,000 tons), and covering an area 1.6 million square kilometers (618,000 square miles), equivalent to three times that of France.
While the new study, published this week in Nature, found that there are far more larger pieces of plastic drifting in the area than thought – most of which are discarded fishing nets, but also plastic crates, bottles, and even a toilet seat – the vast majority of the patch is made up of microplastics measuring in at less than 0.5 millimeters in size.
These bits of plastic come not only from the ships that pass through the Pacific, but also from the trash that is swept out of rivers and off the coasts of the countries that surround it. Due to the pattern of currents, all the garbage is then concentrated into the middle of a massive, swirling gyre that keeps the plastic soup in place.
Yet despite repeated attention and outrage over the Great Pacific Garbage Patch since it was first discovered in the 1980s, it shows no signs of shrinking. Quite the opposite in fact.
“Although it is not possible to draw any firm conclusions on the persistency of plastic pollution in the GPGP yet, this plastic accumulation rate inside the GPGP, which was greater than in the surrounding waters, indicates that the inflow of plastic into the patch continues to exceed the outflow,” explains Laurent Lebreton, who led the study.
In reality, the GPGP is just one such swirling trash stew, with many others existing in the gyres that form in other oceans. Despite pledges by hundreds of nations to cut back on the use of plastics and ease the amount that is hemorrhaging into oceans every single day, little is actually being done by governments.
But non-profit organization Ocean Cleanup, who conducted this latest survey, have other ideas. They plan to send out fleets of vessels that have large floating barriers with underwater screens to hopefully scoop up half of the GPGP within five years, before moving on to other gyres. The first trial will start later this year.
But they warn that it is a losing battle if plastics continue to flow into oceans at the current rate. It is estimated that if nothing is done, the amount of plastic in the ocean will triple within 10 years, and outweigh all the fish by 2050.