Gallery: Great Pacific Garbage Patch is Worse Than We Thought

kaisei, vortex, plastic, gyre

It’s a rumor that we hoped would never be confirmed: at least 1,700 miles of plastic trash is floating in what is commonly known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Up until this point, scientists only had a vague idea of the scope of the trash they would find in the North Pacific Gyre, a vortex where four ocean currents meet.  Isolated patches have been reported by sailors and fishermen, but now researchers, sailors, journalists, and government officials on a nearly four-week journey through the gyre say that plastic shards and netting abound in a space bigger than the state of Texas.

Smaller expeditions have come across the patch before, but researchers from Project Kaisei and the Scripps Environmental Accumulation of Plastic Expedition (SEAPLEX) journeyed through the entire area, collecting samples the whole way. The plastic trash is difficult to visualize from satellites since much of it consists of tiny plastic flecks beneath the surface of the ocean. Among the upsetting things seen by the team: barnacles attached to plastic bottles, and crabs, sea anemones, and sponges living alongside the trash. And while the expedition covered 1,700 miles, members of the Kaisei team say the patch could be much, much larger.

Now that Scripps scientists on the Kaisei team have brought back samples, they will spend at least six months on analysis of the problem to figure out the density of debris in the ocean, sort out the types of plastic there, and determine the ecological impact on wildlife in the Pacific. Some researchers even theorize that the plastic could be recovered and turned into fuel.

Next up for the Scripps researchers: visiting the South Pacific gyre for an expedition that could yield information on an even bigger patch of garbage. The South Pacific journey will set sail either later this year or in 2010.

+ Project Kaisei

Via BBC News


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  1. greenlivingeco March 3, 2011 at 2:17 pm

    This is a tragedy of epic proportions. We think that everyone should know about this, so we blogged on it recently and included a video by GMA that provides some pretty sobering visual images. Sometimes it can take actually seeing something to fully understand it.

  2. American Somoa Becomes ... September 2, 2010 at 1:40 pm

    [...] to 1,000 years to decompose, is particularly harmful in marine environments, where it gathers into huge trash islands and harms animals that mistake it for food. American Somoa consists entirely of islands, and [...]

  3. colearmygirl May 1, 2010 at 10:22 pm


  4. chinamac March 16, 2010 at 3:44 pm

    I think that this is a bad think that was are doing to our earth

  5. concernedstudent January 19, 2010 at 4:36 pm

    I think the garbage patch in itself is so disgusting, I was absolutely shocked and apalled when I first heard about it. I think EVERYONE needs to step up and recycleeverything they can – I even recycle toilet paper rolls when they’re done. The rate that the plastic is accumulating is just way too fast for a cleanup to help at this point. Businesses and individuals need to stop buying so many packaged goods first, to slow the rate of plastic accumulation. Then we need to figure out a way of getting the trash out and what we will do with the plastic collected. I heard in India they built a new highway from discared plastic and IT equipment.

    I also like Bman’s ideas – we need a glovbal wordlwide governing body that could help figure out what to decide about issues like these. Something needs to be done and every country should help, because it’s all our garbage. I’m so glad this is being talked about and more people are finding out what’s going on. From ’88 when they first suspected its existence, to ’97 when Charles Moore came across it, it is now twenty two years later, and the problem is only getting worse. Who knows how it’s already affecting us, since fish are ingesting all the harmful chemical released from the plastic?????

  6. j13 January 11, 2010 at 3:38 pm

    Regarding deadunicorn’s theory, here is a good interview with first-hand commentary from one of the scientists one the Scripps voyage.

    “Goldstein: A lot of people think it looks like a sort of solid island or a garbage dump, but that’s not what we saw. What we saw was a very beautiful ocean, a wonderful cerulean blue color, and every so often a big piece would just float by — a big clump of net, or a plastic crate, or something like that. And then when we would put our nets in the water; we would just pull up lots of plastic. If you looked down and looked very carefully you could see the little pieces, but mostly the ocean just looked like ocean.”

  7. goinLAte December 19, 2009 at 9:13 pm

    I’ve been doing quite a bit of research into this, as well. There is no ‘hard’ proof of a GREAT garbage patch. However, there IS quite a bit of random trash throughout our oceans. We see that everyday wash up on pretty much every beach around the world (enough photographic/anecdotal evidence to accept this as concensus).

    Regardless if it’s in one big patch or randomly floating, it doesn’t take a scientist (or environmentalist) to figure out we have a problem that needs to be corrected QUICKLY. We have a hundreds of idiots whining over carbon footprints and how a 1 degree increase in temperature will effect us in 500 years. Maybe a better use of their time would be to solve the garbage problem, first. THAT is effecting us NOW.

    Clean up is the first step… but we need to prevent further buildup as well.

    Side note: I was behind a Prius with a bunch of environmental/anti-war bumper stickers… the driver proceeded to flick a cigarette butt out the window. Nice.

  8. Bensonbe December 1, 2009 at 11:52 pm

    Enough talk and ventures of celebrities and news crews. Let’s clean it up and take action to ensure these disasters don’t happen, again.

  9. waltwang08 September 28, 2009 at 7:18 pm

    The following is an excerpt from the blog. It recounts tracking of rubbish in the GPGP from a seaplane as low as 30 feet above the ocean. Greenlandoceanblue made the trip from Honolulu to meet with the research vessel Alguita but was unable to land because of ocean currents. “Three hours into the flight and the debris sightings soon develop a kind of rhythmic cadence. Surface debris flies by like confetti on the surface below, styrofoam cups, basketballs, bags, pure trash scattered in the texture of the sea. As the plane descends closer to the surface, the debris stream is a constant… 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4… 4/4 time beats of trash with scattered accents along the way. A sad song indeed.”

  10. Milieunet September 6, 2009 at 4:12 pm

    So much waste. Found a complete video series of this mess:

  11. lela September 4, 2009 at 9:48 am

    bad trash

  12. Dead_Unicorns September 2, 2009 at 10:41 am

    @Somnium – I elaborated at great length with numerous web based references but, Inhabitat removed the post.

    @Stickleback – I’m very please to see that you are doing some research of your own, rather than having a knee jerk reaction to sensationalist blog posts. Though, I must say that your post suggests some connection with the parties involved. None the less, I would recommend that you take a grain of salt when using “Captain” Charles Moore, a “self trained and self described researcher” or Wikipedia, an open to anyone to write articles “encyclopedia”, on this issue.

    I would also like to point out again that when we trace the articles and reports and hyperbolic press releases about the garbage patch all the way back to the source, the vast majority of them originate from or cite “Captain” Charles Moore, the “self trained and self described researcher”, founder of the Algalita “Marine Research Foundation” and apparent champion of the cause.

    Only last month did UC San Diego and Scripps look into the matter and they have yet to release their findings.

  13. Stickleback September 2, 2009 at 12:26 am

    Hi Dead_Unicorn (and Somnium). I stumbled upon this page and was curious as to why no one had bothered to link to a certifiable sorts on this garbage patches existence, so I did some digging. The link in the article goes (for SEAPLEX) goes to the project’s webpage – it’s funded by the Univeristy of California – which as an accredited university (last I knew) tends not to fund expeditions to things that don’t exist. Looking on the people page, the person who I’m going to assume in the PI since they hold the highest degree – Jim Leichter – has his own lab and webpage – I couldn’t find a clear paper on the subject of the garbage patch on his page, so I turned to wikipedia (which says both that a garbage patch exists, is the size of Texas, and isn’t visible via satelite due to the breakdown of plastics below the surface. But it’s wikipedia, take that as you will.)

    I scrolled down to the sources, and found linked .pdfs of two peer reviewed scientific papers, one published in 1988, and the other published in 2001, speaking of a large patch of garbage in the pacific (though the 1988 only guessed at its existence). The 2001 one has the quote:

    “The North Pacific central gyre, an area of high pressure with a clockwise ocean current, is one such area of convergence that forces debris into a central area with little wind and current influence.” – Moore, Charles; Moore, S. L.; Leecaster, M. K.; Weisberg, S. B. (4), “A Comparison of Plastic and Plankton in the North Pacific Central Gyre

    I don’t have time to dig more, but the wikipedia article which cites these papers is here: and the articles are downloadable as a /pdf. The Moore paper did, however, give estimations as to the density of the plastics, it gives measurements right in the abstract (though for the record, your comment on data processing sometimes taking months to a year? Though I have no direct experience in oceanography, it can takes years to collect and process data in science. At the end if you’re lucky and that data actually has something to say, you then spend several months writing up a paper and then even longer waiting for it to go through peer review to get published.)

    In the end, this is a blog. The random pictures of trash were almost certainly not what the scientist were going for – they were going for something they could turn into a paper. And those take a long time to turn out. These aren’t ‘environmentalists’, these are scientists. They like, get paid to figure out what’s going on and their experiments need to stand up to criticism and be repeatable for them to continue to have their job. This blog is what has an agenda, since well, it’s a blog.

    I’m just boggled that no one clicked on the links provided in the post itself 0.o Anyways, that should be enough to get you started if you want to dig more, mine the sources cite in the papers I linked and have fun.

  14. alexjameslowe August 31, 2009 at 12:05 pm

    Right on! I’m glad people are talking about the solar-powered robot idea. That would be fun little proposal to write up!

  15. Somnium August 30, 2009 at 12:53 pm


    Could you elaborate on your “direct, personal experience”?

    Unless you are directly involved in the collection of data for the garbage patch, or you’ve personally been to the Pacific gyre (which for your sake I hope you returned safely from), you cannot claim that it does not exist based on your own research and assumptions, because the majority of the available information have been filtered through. Any research done would not be original. Your opinion would be based on your perception of the information given to you, and your interpretations.

    Having said that, every information outlet and even organizations such as UN environment have confirmed the existence and significance of this garbage patch, because the evidence is there. We are past the point of questioning its presence.
    In the extremely unlikely case that EVERY SINGLE ONE of them are incorrect, I think we would still be in the exact same situation. The garbage mass in Earth’s oceans is astronomical. This would raise awareness of it.

    As I’ve pointed out before, only a representation of the patch or a small section is possible for visual because of photodegradation, and the sheer size of the patch. I doubt that a satellite image would be able to distinguish between the field of molecule-sized plastic polymers and be adjacent body of water. It’s the same as trying to distinguish between salt water and distilled water.
    Also think about the rate of photodegradation, and the fact that more and more plastic converge on the gyre everyday. If they wanted, they could have a complete set of model representing the different stages of plastic in the process of photodegradation. That’s why there are still visible chunks of plastic. Of course, majority of it are mixed in with the water.

    As for the data collection, there are preliminary data available. As for the conclusive, empirical data that you seek, consider again the size of the patch. Even if it were twice as small, or maybe a quarter of the size, the length of the research and data collection would be extremely tedious and time-consuming. It’s not the same as tv dinner; take it out of the fridge, microwave, wait and you’re done. Scientific rigor is a high priority, and that takes large amounts of time.

    Having said that, the choice of photographs here are not exactly meant to prove its existence, but more likely to persuade sympathy and promote empathy.

    On the end note, I’d like to know of any possible reasons you could have formulated for the scientists to exaggerate the situation.

  16. Bman August 30, 2009 at 12:09 am

    Rather than simply having roaming solar-powered cleaning units, why not have these units extract garbage from the sea and use it to power adjoining floating research vessels and ecotourism structures. It’s the open sea, but as a gyre, you can assume it’s pretty calm and accommodating. This would be a sure-fire way to obtain more reliable data. It would also ensure a continual level of exposure to the problem by allowing “regular” people to get involved in the cleanup firsthand and share their knowledge and experience with others.

    The technology exists for this to be a realistic option in dealing with this large-scale, won’t fix itself, environmental shit-pile we’ve created (we, as in society). Only thing is, the various patches mainly reside in international waters, making it complicated to figure out who is responsible for the mess or entitled to make decisions regarding solutions. When the questions arises, “who’s paying for this?”, we don’t hear many takers. Visualize representatives from each nation sitting at a big table… beady eyes looking from side to side with mouths zipped tight, waiting for someone alongside them to offer. Eventually the issue of cost will lead to an argument of who made the mess… which turns out to be only a few countries generating the majority of garbage.

    Rather than wait around and hope a few countries take the initiative or a few non-profits start their own small-scale humanitarian effort, why don’t we establish a global governing body for the protection and preservation of our worlds oceans that can act promptly to address current issues and push for more global education on ocean care and sustainability. At this point, we as individual nations view our oceans as unlimited resources and wide-open dumping grounds. I think we can agree that we can’t continue to operate this way.

    We’ve become a society centered around the use of disposable items that we produce and discard on a monumental scale. This mentality has to change. Developing biodegradable plastic is not the answer. We must learn to RECLAIM, REUSE, and RECYCLE in order to ensure the reduction of waste and consumption.

    Our packaging methods must change. Think of all the garbage created from the plastic wrap, box, foil, foam, etc that immediately gets disposed of when you attempt to get to an item you purchased. Almost everything we buy is wrapped in something. Furthermore, think of all the products designed cheap enough to ensure they break and you need to replace (rather than repair) them with another half-ass product. Changing the way we design, package, distribute, and use items needs to change… basically we need to revert back to the way it used to be, before WWII, when people were less wasteful and products were built with long-lasting quality in mind.

    Economics and free-enterprise has changed our world dramatically since WWII, but we have the ability to change all that with a simple change in mindset. I get the feeling we missed the opportunity to be proactive towards this issue, but any action is better than none at all, right?

  17. jaane80 August 29, 2009 at 2:38 pm

    @Stiv Wilson

    That is NOT a picture of the garbage patch. The picture on Treehugger is credited to which does not cite a source for the photo. I wouldn’t count on any blog as a credible source.

    It is likely a picture of phytoplankton or an algae bloom like these photos

  18. muddmike August 29, 2009 at 1:23 pm

    Better than just cleaning up the mess, why don’t we modify ships to be able to scoop up the waste and use it as fuel. This will save oil, and clean up the waste.

    Then of course we have to work on not creating more mess, but that will take longer since it will require several billion people to change their habits.

  19. Dead_Unicorns August 29, 2009 at 12:09 pm

    @Stiv Wilson – Thank you for essentially proving my point. You provide a photograph, from a site ironically named Tree Hugger, that claims to be exactly what these environmentalists say cannot be done. They say that this first Texas and now continent sized garbage patch can’t be photographed even by satellites and when I call BS, you produce a photograph that is claimed to be just that.

    But, the photograph you provided is actually of an algae bloom off the coast of Japan. While nothing to actually do with a garbage patch of any kind it does, rather well, illustrate my point about our excellent remote sensing capabilities. Thanks!

    @Somnium – I’m not jumping to any conclusions. I have done my own research and have direct personal experience(anecdotal I know) regarding this particular matter. But, the irrefutable facts are that we have ever increasingly bold and outrageous claims with little to no real physical evidence. The lack of evidence is repeatedly excused by self reinforcing statements that claim, it’s not possible to photograph because of various lame and inaccurate excuses. We also lack evidence such as trawls that could give specific densities for any particular area. A simple net trawl will tell exactly how many parts per million, or tons per square mile, there are. But, this empirical data is always missing and excuses about taking 6 months to a year to process the data abound. Why? Perhaps because such data isn’t nearly as favorable to their apparent cause as say, a choking turtle on a beach?

    Thank you also for broaching the photo-degradation subject. It is commonly bandied about that plastic is eternal, never degrading and always polluting. But your statement, as well as photographs of photo-degraded chucks of plastic puts yet another hole in the inaccurate hyperbole.

    Again, I’d like to point out that I do not deny, for a second, that the oceans are full of garbage and chemical pollution. But, I do absolutely refute the hyperbolic claims about the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch”. The claim is in and of itself utter garbage.

  20. serendipityattack August 29, 2009 at 8:17 am

    that robot would only tackle the symptom but not the disease itself…

    this is really sad to hear.

  21. Somnium August 29, 2009 at 3:04 am


    Before jumping to conclusions and labeling this as bogus, it’d be wise to do a bit of research on your own to see if your hypothesis is correct. Your skepticism is not without validity; there is indeed no definitive, conclusive visual proof of “a Texas sized” garbage patch floating on the ocean being displayed, but the slightest of researching will reveal to you the simple answer: photodegradation. The plastic breaks down to molecular levels.

    This garbage patch is no ordinary “plastic waste dump”. The water is polluted with plastic, just as our tap water is mixed with trace amounts of metal. This field of garbage cannot be characterized visually as a continuous area.

  22. mcrbids August 28, 2009 at 11:30 pm


    We spent $3 trillion dollars killing Iraqis (who didn’t have weapons of mass destruction and who didn’t have anything to do with 9/11)

    There’s plenty of evidence that socialized medicine works quite well – just asks your father’s generation who rely on medicare. And “teh gubbmint” doesn’t screw up everything – somehow our “gubbmint run” military manages to be the best in the world, while the USPS has existed for YEARS without any funding at all….

    Let’s stop killing Iraqis and spend the money instead spend the money building a local energy industry! For $3 Trillion dollars we could all but END our dependence on foreign energy sources!

    Priorities! Priorities! Priorities!

  23. Stiv Wilson August 28, 2009 at 9:27 pm
  24. corbin August 28, 2009 at 7:16 pm

    Wouldn’t $1 trillion dollars go along way to clean this up? Let’s just waste the money on health care reform … while people are starving, people go without fresh water, while we still kill babies in the name of woman’s rights and while this problem continues to get worse! Priorities!

  25. dratman August 28, 2009 at 7:15 pm

    alexjameslowe — great idea! Your method would not endanger many marine creatures, as it only needs to process floating items. The device would be a sea-going, solar-powered Roombot!

  26. Dead_Unicorns August 28, 2009 at 5:52 pm

    This is BOGUS!

    Look guys, I’ll be happy to show you that there are tons or garbage in the world’s oceans. I’ve plied several oceans and have indeed seen several small gyres with chunks of garbage floating in the middle. I’ve also seen beaches with tons of garbage washed up into a several feet thick blanket of garbage on the beach. It’s not right and we do need to make an effort to reduce what we dump into the ocean. But this recurring story of a Texas sized garbage patch, and most especially the escape clause that it can’t be photographed because it’s little bits and their just below the surface, IS UTTER GARBAGE!

    Our ability to do remote sensing via satellites is incredibly good. In the oceans we can image 0.5 degree water temperature variations, microscopic plankton blooms, and even salinity variations. We can detect disease in crops that are invisible to the naked eye. We can image currents in the ocean and water vapor in the air. Do you really believe that anything “bigger than Texas” could be out there and we would be completely incapable of imaging it? Even after sending ships and research vessels “through it”?

    These researchers spent a month in this “bigger than Texas soup” and the most compelling proof that they can provide is a couple pictures of garbage in peanut butter jars, a floating net, and a heart wrenching, and completely unrelated picture of a turtle(on land) choking on a plastic bag?! Come on! Let’s use our brains for just a second.

    Using nets, we can pull 100 tons of fish out of the water in under 30 minutes. Could these researchers not have used a net to extract 100 tons of garbage(a tiny amount for Texas) in a month’s time and take a picture of the accumulated makings of Texas?

  27. Stiv Wilson August 28, 2009 at 3:26 pm

    It’s great that this issue is finally getting some media attention and that several groups are now exploring the north pacific gyre, bringing more and more media attention to founder of Algalita Marine Research Foundation, Charles Moore’s discovery of the gyre in 1997. But a few things to note— the sampling area that Algalita has covered is way more than 1,700 miles (nautical or otherwise)– 7,000. They’ve been saying that the gyre is more like the size of the continental United States for years. And much of the work that Scripps scientists are engaged in has already been done. This journey, I’m informed, was funded by the recycling industry. What we need to worry about is that this issue, which has ALREADY been documented to be an epic ecological disaster is not suddenly transformed into some sort of new industry development that promises new energy from cleaning up plastic debris. That kind of messaging can be dangerous, as it doesn’t encourage prevention.

    For a first hand account of what it’s like to travel to the gyre, check out: Sailing The Synthetic Sea, by Anna Cummins, You can read the article in its entirety for free.

  28. Trey Farmer Trey Farmer August 28, 2009 at 1:31 pm

    Vice Magazine’s documentary crew did a great spot on this a little while ago. Definitely worth a watch:

  29. alexjameslowe August 28, 2009 at 12:55 pm

    Oh man- that is just awful. Some one needs to invent some kind of solar-powered autonomous trawlers that can rove those vortex areas to pick up trash. They could have GPS and avoid shipping lanes.

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