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A Deep Dive Into The Great Pacific Garbage Patch

A seagull stands on a pile of trash floating in water, with more islands of garbage in the background. Several birds fly in the blue sky above

Written by Parmin Sedigh
Illustrated by Maggie Huang

If you ever want to see a monument to where society went wrong, look no further than the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Located between California and Hawaii in the Pacific Ocean, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a swirl of marine debris spanning an estimated 1.6 million square kilometers, three times the size of France!¹,² Often thought to be a single island of garbage, the region is actually made up of multiple smaller patches of litter encompassed by loose swirls of debris gyrating through the ocean currents.¹ With the threats posed by pollution in marine ecosystems, this expanse of floating waste is in crucial need of clearing as the issue of plastic pollution must be urgently addressed at its root.

From over 320 million tonnes of plastic produced globally every year, a staggering 1.15 to 2.41 million tonnes are estimated to enter the ocean annually via river systems.³ With more than half of all plastics having a density lower than water, the debris can float effectively and hitch a ride along connecting ocean currents, offering a one way ticket to the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre.³ As the home of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the gyre consists of four swirling ocean currents: the California Current, the Northern Equatorial Current, the Juroshio Current, and the North Pacific Current.¹ The middle of the gyre is generally calm amidst the surrounding movement of water, which causes debris to become trapped in this stable zone after being carried in by the circular motions of the surrounding currents.¹ This is where the debris ends its journey for the time being, as it continues to degrade and disturb marine life. 

islands of trash dot a stretch of blue water, with the silhouette of a whale visible beneath.

While the Great Pacific Garbage Patch harbors all types of trash, the most common types are plastics, which also make up most of the human debris found in the oceans. Of these plastics, microplastics are the most prevalent.¹ Large plastics (often plastic bags, bottle caps, plastic water bottles, and Styrofoam cups) break down from exposure to sunlight, temperature fluctuations, waves, and interactions with marine life.¹,³ These processes break them down into tiny ‘microplastic’ particles that keep getting smaller without degrading. Because of their small size, microplastics pose a threat to marine life as animals often eat them after mistaking these particles for food.¹ Larger plastics in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch are also problematic for marine life, posing various threats to wildlife, including getting entangled in the debris or mistaking plastic for food.¹ Loggerheaded turtles, for example, have been observed eating plastic bags due to their visual similarity to jellyfish, and albatrosses feed their chicks plastic pellets after mistaking them for fish eggs.¹ Unfortunately, plastic ingestion can lead to dire consequences, including death from starvation.¹ In addition, marine mammals like seals and dolphins are at risk of drowning after becoming entangled in discarded fishing lines from fishing boats.¹

Cleaning the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a daunting task, not only for its sheer size, but also because materials like microplastics are so small that they risk getting caught with marine life during clean up efforts.¹ International politics also play into the hesitancy to clean up the Patch as no nation wants to take responsibility for the clean up efforts since the Patch is so distant from any nation’s coastline.¹ In response to these issues, international organizations have taken it upon themselves to clean up the Patch. The Ocean Cleanup, led by their mission of cleaning up 90% of floating plastic pollution in the ocean, is one organization at the forefront of these efforts.² As for the Great Pacific Garbage Patch itself, the organization has gone through years of testing to determine effective cleanup methods.² Currently, the latest method is using two ships to drag a 2.2-kilometre-long net, which at one point removed a record-breaking 18 tonnes of trash from one sweep.⁴ Aside from cleaning up the Patch, global efforts are continuously being made to help clean up pollution on shores before they even reach the ocean. Despite these efforts, the best solution to the ongoing problem of plastic pollution is to stop waste production at its source.⁵ Overconsumption, unsustainable practices, and improper waste disposal are just a few of the contributors to the issue of marine plastic pollution. As governments and organizations attempt to tackle these issues, we can help by avoiding single-use plastics wherever possible, consuming thoughtfully and sustainably, and becoming more informed about pollution issues.


  1. Great Pacific Garbage Patch. National Geographic Education. 2024 Feb 1 [accessed 2024 Mar 17]. 
  2. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The Ocean Cleanup. 2024 Jan 4 [accessed 2024 Mar 17]. 
  3. Lebreton L, Slat B, Ferrari F, Sainte-Rose B, Aitken J, Marthouse R, Hajbane S, Cunsolo S, Schwarz A, Levivier A, et al. Evidence that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is rapidly accumulating plastic. Nature. 2018;8(1). doi:10.1038/s41598-018-22939-w 
  4. Kersley A. Is cleaning up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch Worth the effort? New Scientist. 2024 Jan 25 [accessed 2024 Mar 17].