Skip to content (press enter)


Mel's Mess This Month: The Great Pacific Garbage Patch

What is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch? 

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP) refers to a vast accumulation of marine debris, primarily composed of plastic, floating in the North Pacific Ocean. It is not a solid mass or island of garbage but rather a dispersed area with a high concentration of floating debris. The exact size and location of the Garbage Patch can vary due to ocean currents and weather conditions, making it challenging to measure precisely.

The debris in the GPGP is primarily made up of plastic bottles, bags, packaging materials, fishing nets, and other discarded plastic items. Over time, larger pieces of plastic break down into smaller fragments known as microplastics, which are less than 5mm in size. 

The GPGP is not the only garbage patch in the world's oceans. Similar accumulations of marine debris exist in other oceanic regions, highlighting the global issue of plastic pollution and the urgent need for effective waste management and conservation efforts to protect our oceans and marine ecosystems.

How does the litter make it to the ocean? 

Litter finds its way to the GPGP through various pathways. Here are some common ways in which litter reaches this massive accumulation of debris:

  • Litter and waste generated on land, such as plastic bottles, bags, and packaging, can be carried by wind or washed into rivers and streams. Eventually, these waterways transport the litter into the ocean.
  • Proximity to coastlines and the presence of rivers can contribute significantly to the transport of litter. Trash discarded or improperly managed in coastal communities can be washed into the ocean by tidal currents and stormwater runoff. Rivers act as conduits, carrying debris from inland areas to the coast and eventually into the ocean.
  • Commercial shipping vessels, cruise ships, and fishing fleets can unintentionally or intentionally discharge waste and debris into the ocean. This includes discarded fishing nets, packaging materials, and other types of waste generated during these activities.
  • Severe storms and natural disasters can cause localized flooding and lead to the transport of litter and debris from land into the ocean. This can occur through stormwater runoff or direct inundation of coastal areas.
  • Ocean currents, particularly the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, play a significant role in transporting debris over long distances. Once the litter enters the ocean, it can be carried by currents and gradually accumulate in the GPGP. 

Why is it bad for the environment? 

A lot of the debris the GPGP accumulates is not biodegradable. Many plastics, for instance, do not wear down; they simply break into tinier pieces known as microplastics.

In my recent blog post about plastic bottles, I highlighted a startling fact: these seemingly innocuous items can take more than 500 years to decompose. The long-lasting nature of plastic bottles underscores the persistent impact they have on the environment and the urgency to find sustainable alternatives.

Animals think these microplastics are food and consume them. Since they cannot digest them, they think they are full and become malnourished and die. Other animals will get straws stuck up their nose, tangled around their body or trapped in the litter.

A study by the Ocean Conservancy found that around 74% of fillets and 63% of livers had at least one microplastic present, while 99% of fish had at least one particle present in any of the tissues.

Plastics in the GPGP can release harmful chemicals into the ocean, particularly when exposed to sunlight and seawater. These chemicals can include additives used in plastic manufacturing, as well as absorbed pollutants from the surrounding environment. When marine organisms ingest or come into contact with these contaminated plastics, they can suffer from toxic effects and disrupt their reproductive, hormonal, and immune systems.

In my blog posts, I've delved into the intricate details of the recycling process, shedding light on the fact that those familiar chasing arrows often seen on packaging don't always guarantee recyclability. Unfortunately, many items labeled with these symbols ultimately find their way to landfills instead. Even stores that encourage plastic drop-off programs may not consistently ensure that the collected plastic gets recycled.

Moreover, the challenge of waste management extends beyond the stores and recycling facilities. Garbage pickup trucks don't always capture every piece of litter, leading to debris scattered on streets and even finding its way into sewers. Human behavior plays a role as well, with some individuals being less diligent about properly disposing of their rubbish, leaving it behind instead.

The consequences of such negligence become apparent during rainy or windy weather conditions. As rainwater washes over the streets and wind carries lightweight litter, the waste flows through the sewers, ultimately reaching the vast expanse of the oceans, including the infamous GPGP. This continuous cycle perpetuates the accumulation of debris in our precious marine ecosystems.

What can be done?

Encouraging individuals and communities to reduce their use of single-use plastics, such as plastic bags, bottles, and straws, can significantly decrease the amount of plastic waste entering the ocean. Other ways include:

  • Improve waste management
  • Promote recycling and circular economy
  • Support international agreements and policies
  • Educate and raise awareness

Collaboration among governments, organizations, scientists, and communities is essential to address the issue on a global scale. Sharing knowledge, resources, and best practices can accelerate efforts to combat marine pollution.

The Ocean Cleanup, a non-profit organization, has taken an innovative approach to tackle the issue of plastic pollution. They are constructing artificial coastlines designed to concentrate plastic debris, making it easier to collect. If you happen to visit the Marina Del Rey Breakwater, you might notice one of their trash interceptors strategically positioned at the mouth of Ballona Creek. Thus far, this device has played a crucial role in preventing over 55 tons of trash from entering the ocean and being carried towards the gyres. To put this into perspective, it is equivalent to the average weight of a Southern Right Whale, highlighting the significant impact of their efforts.

Learn More: