Only one year ago, scientists predicted that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch — a massive floating clump of plastics located between California and Hawaii — was the size of France. Just recently the size estimate has been revised and it is now estimated to be three times the size of the French country, or two times as big as the state of Texas.
The patch was discovered in 1997 by Charles Moore, while he was sailing home on his yacht and ended up in a vast area of floating bottles and other plastic debris on his way back to Los Angeles.
Previous estimates of the size of the patch used vessels with nets attached and made scientific estimates based on what was picked up, but the Ocean Cleanup Foundation used a fleet of 18 boats crossing a central section of the mass, drawing nets behind them. This only covered a small section of the area, and researchers then realized the only way to get a full picture of the plastic debris is from above.
Researchers used a covered military aircraft to take aerial images that identified large pieces of trash in the ocean, and after three years came up with this estimate: 1.6 million square kilometres, and within that, 80,000 tons of plastic.
A lot of the plastic that ends up in our oceans breaks up into "microplastics" after several years at sea. These are extremely small pieces of plastic that are between 0.05 and 0.5 cm in diameter, and estimates peg the total number of them at 1.8 trillion pieces, or 250 for every person on the planet.
Global plastic production (in million metric tons)
Much of the plastic that ends up in the water breaks down into “microplastics” after a few years at sea. Microplastics are extremely small fragments of plastic, classified as anything between 0.05 centimeters (.02 inches) to 0.5 cm in diameter. In total, the new study estimates there are 1.8 trillion plastic pieces, or 250 for every person on earth. Of them, 94% are microplastics, according to the researchers.
There's a few misconceptions that should be addressed about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch — it doesn't look like an actual piece of land and therefore can't be seen from space, as sometimes claimed. However, there is a petition that was recently launched with the hopes of declaring the Great Pacific Garbage Patch as an actual country, bringing the issue to light on a global scale.
Plastic in the ocean isn't just unsightly; it poses threats to marine life and has health implications for humans too. Ocean plastics enter the human food chain through bioaccumulation, which is when plastic is eaten by fish and other ocean creatures before they are, in turn, eaten by us.
One proposal to help the situation is to build a 62-mile floating wall that would catch garbage as it is pushed around by the current. The plastics collected would be stored and then recycled or used in other manufacturing processes. Then there's SeaBin, a project that aims to suck up trash and oil in the ocean, but which is less effective at collecting microplastics due to their smaller size.