You may have heard of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. If you haven’t, it’s exactly what it sounds like: a massive vortex of trash floating in the Pacific Ocean.
Scientists studying this ocean trashcan have discovered it contains at least 79,000 tons of plastic—that’s up to 16 times higher than previous estimates. Measuring about 620,000 miles², the island of rubbish is twice the size of Texas.
Researcher Laurent Lebreton from The Ocean Cleanup and colleagues quantified the glut of debris in a study published Thursday in Scientific Reports. They discovered not only did the patch contain much more plastic than previously believed, but it is rapidly accumulating more and more microplastics.
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a huge hoard of persistent ocean plastic, chemical sludge and other debris. Buoyant, hard-to-decompose trash becomes trapped over decades in the currents of a massive ocean vortex—in this case, the Northern Pacific Gyre. This patch floats in subtropical waters between California and Hawaii.
Plastic trash is pictured strewn across a beach at Wake Island in the Pacific Ocean.
Bottles, Fishing Nets, Ropes
The team used aerial images as well as data from 652 net tows to give them a more accurate picture of the trash than previously described. They found that plastics made up 99.9 percent of the debris: 46 percent was made up of fishing nets and more than 75 percent of the plastic pieces measured more than 5cm.
Researchers identified individual pieces of plastic: containers, lids, ropes and bottles. They even spotted production dates ranging from the 1970s to the present decade. One from 1977, 7 from the 1980s, 17 from the 1990s, 24 from the 2000s and 1 from 2010.
Microplastics measuring 0.02 to 0.2 inches made up 8 percent of the total plastic. That might not seem like a lot, but it equates to 94 percent of the 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic floating in the patch. The volume of microplastic in the Great Pacific Garbage patch, they discovered, has increased dramatically since the 1970s.
“We knew most pieces are comprised of microplastics; however, when you look at the total available mass of plastic, most material is contained in large debris that may degrade into harmful microplastics over time,” Lebreton told Gizmodo.
Growth in Plastic Pollution
A growth in the volume of plastic pieces—big and small—has likely fuelled the team’s results. The authors suggest an increasing level of ocean plastic pollution could well be behind the results, particularly after the 2011 Tohoku tsunami.
More research is needed, they said, to work out exactly where all this plastic trash is coming from, and how long it can linger in the vortex.
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