What Is The Great Pacific Garbage Patch?

How the ocean traps trash and what effect it can have on marine environments.

Marine debris
Garbage washed up on a beach (Photo: s0ulsurfer -Jason Swain/Getty Images).

For several decades, it has made its home in the vast waters of the Pacific Ocean. But it is not any living creature as we know it. It is garbage. And it has amassed in such large quantities in our world's oceans that ecologists worry about the effect it is having on marine habitats and wildlife.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is the collective name given to two distnict masses of garbage floating in the Pacific Ocean.

The patch is actually comprised of the Eastern Garbage Patch, located near Japan, and the Western Garbage Patch, located between the U.S. states of Hawaii and California. 

The patches have formed thanks to ocean currents that trap debris in their stable centers. Actually, the patches have formed thanks to the mounds of garbage that have found their way into the world's oceans. 

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch was first documented by sailing captain Charles Moore in 1999. In an article for Natural History magazine about his discovery, Moore wrote:

"So on the way back to our home port in Long Beach, California, we decided to take a shortcut through the gyre, which few seafarers ever cross. Fishermen shun it because its waters lack the nutrients to support an abundant catch. Sailors dodge it because it lacks the wind to propel their sailboats."

"Yet as I gazed from the deck at the surface of what ought to have been a pristine ocean, I was confronted, as far as the eye could see, with the sight of plastic.

"It seemed unbelievable, but I never found a clear spot. In the week it took to cross the subtropical high, no matter what time of day I looked, plastic debris was floating everywhere: bottles, bottle caps, wrappers, fragments. Months later, after I discussed what I had seen with the oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer, perhaps the world's leading expert on flotsam, he began referring to the area as the 'eastern garbage patch.'"

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is comprised primarily of plastics and other non-biodegredable materials.  Oceanographers and ecologists recently discovered that about 70 percent of marine debris actually sinks to the bottom of the ocean, while the rest remains suspended in the ocean waters as a cloudy soup of microplastics and other garbage.

This marine debris can be very harmful to marine life who see it as food or objects of interest. Sea turtles may mistake the plastic bags for jelly fish, and die of starvation while their stomaches remain filled with plastics. Sea birds may mistake microplastic pellets for fish eggs and feed them to their chicks, who then die of starvation or ruptured organs. and we have all seen the photos of turtles, dolphins, whales, and sea birds that have become entangled and entraped by floating bits of plastic.

In addition, plastics can leach harmful chemicals into the marine environment, One such chemical, bisphenol A (BPA), has been linked to environmental and human health problems. 

So what can you do to reduce the amount of plastic and debris found floating in the ocean? The best thing that you can do is to reduce the amount of trash that you generate on a daily basis. In addition, limiting or eliminating your use of disposable plastics can help keep these items from finding their way into the ocean and contributing to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.