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The Great Pacific Garbage Patch: The Floating Islands of Trash Three Times the Size of France

The Pacific Ocean has two large gyres filled with trash, and it's coming from us.

Katie Teague Writer II
Katie is a writer covering all things how-to at CNET, with a focus on Social Security and notable events. When she's not writing, she enjoys playing in golf scrambles, practicing yoga and spending time on the lake.
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turtle swimming in ocean surrounded by trash

Ocean trash is affecting marine life.

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As plastic waste continues to grow, so does the trash that's accumulating in the Pacific Ocean. Two huge floating islands of garbage are taking up hundreds of thousands of square miles of real estate in what's known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

The vortices of garbage in the Pacific harm marine life as well as the environment, exacerbating human-caused climate change. The effects of climate change have been widespread and mounting, including melting of polar ice, rising sea levels and extreme weather. Many efforts are underway to address the issues, from international agreements coming out of the UN's COP conferences to individual choices like switching to solar energy, but much remains to be done.

While climate change is largely caused by human-made greenhouse gas emissions from the burning of fossil fuels for energy -- with the top three emitters worldwide being China, the US and the EU -- microplastics and trash in our oceans do contribute to the climate crisis. 

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Ocean plastic damages air quality, pollutes the atmosphere and contributes to global warming, according to Iberdrola, a multinational electric utility.

Sunlight and heat cause plastic to release powerful greenhouse gasses. The WWF says as the planet gets hotter, the plastic breaks down into methane and ethylene, which increases the rate of climate change.

Chemical components and legacy pollutants also absorb into the plastic marine animals are eating, Nancy Wallace, director of the Marine Debris Program at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, told CNET.

It's why environmental nonprofit Ocean Cleanup is working to clear the mess out. From August 2021 through August 2023, the Ocean Cleanup deployed Jenny (System 002), its first large-scale cleaning system. Over its two-year span, it cleared out more than 623,439 pounds of trash. The crew launched its newest cleaning system, System 03, in late August 2023.

Addressing the climate crisis requires reducing pollution in the oceans, which accumulate an additional 14 million tons of plastic yearly.

Here's what you need to know about the islands of trash in the Pacific Ocean, and how you can help with the cleanup.

Where is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch?

The garbage patch is two vortices filled with trash in the Pacific Ocean. The two whirlpools of human detritus are known as the Western Garbage Patch (closer to Japan) and the Eastern Garbage Patch (closer to California and Mexico). 

They're also known as gyres, which is when two ocean currents come together and create a hurricane-like current, Wallace said. Materials then get caught in the gyres.

While you may think the patches are solid masses of tangled plastic, they're actually dispersed across hundreds of miles of the Pacific. You could sail through the patches without even noticing you're in them. This is because as much as 70% of the trash eventually sinks to the bottom of the ocean, Wallace said, and more evidence shows it sinks into a water column, which is why it's not all on the surface.

How large is the garbage patch?

The Ocean Cleanup estimates that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch occupies 1.6 million square kilometers, about twice the size of Texas, or three times the size of France. It's estimated to span around 620,000 square miles.

However, the actual size of the island of trash is unknown, since not all of the trash sits on top of the water, Wallace said, and it's a moving target due to waves and wind. It does, however, stay within a specific area due to ocean currents.

How much trash is in the garbage patch?

There's an estimated 1.8 trillion pieces of trash in the garbage patch, according to Conservation.org, which also projects that by 2050, the mass of ocean trash from plastic will outweigh its fish. 

During its sampling, the Ocean Cleanup said it found more than 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic in the patch, weighing an estimated 80,000 tons. The organization said that number is a midrange value, and its calculations estimated that it may range from 1.1 to 3.6 trillion pieces.

At least 11 million tons of plastic enter all the oceans each year, and ocean-borne plastic is forecast to double by 2030, according to the Ocean Conservancy.

What kind of garbage is in the mounds of ocean trash?

Most of the trash comes from land in North America and Asia, like plastic bottles and straws that have found their way into the ocean. Trash can eventually make its way into the ocean from land-based sources, such as rivers, storm water and littering. 

However, 20% comes from boats or ships that discard debris into the ocean, including lost fishing gear, according to the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation.

trash collected by the Ocean Cleanup's System 03

Piles of garbage collected by the Ocean Cleanup's System 03.

The Ocean Cleanup

How does the garbage affect marine life?

You've likely seen photos of sea turtles and whales with fishing nets tangled around their bodies and shells. This is just one terrible effect that human-generated debris has on marine life. 

Animals in the ocean can also ingest the plastic debris, which can harm their digestive tracts and make them feel as though they're full, Wallace said. This results in the animals not eating the food they need to survive. The plastic could also lacerate their organs.

Microplastics can also damage the ocean

Microplastics are less than 5 millimeters long and come from larger debris that breaks down into smaller pieces, so they're much harder to filter out. These small plastics can likewise pose a threat to aquatic animals as they ingest the debris. 

But can eating fish that have consumed these microplastics hurt humans? Ocean Cleanup says when animals eat the plastics containing chemicals, there's a possibility the chemicals could eventually make their way up the food chain to people.

What's being done to clean up the ocean trash?

Groups are working to prevent more trash from ending up in the garbage patches by reducing the number of single-use products, such as bottles and straws. There are also people working on cleanup and removal of debris on or near the shore, because it's easier to get land trash picked up. 

Other groups are looking at doing open ocean cleanup to collect debris like fishing gear and other smaller pieces that are floating around, but there are some challenges since the Pacific Ocean is so big and deep. 

Organizations like the WWF and Ocean Conservancy are also working closely with partners to focus on standardized regulations for businesses that regularly use plastic or that design products made primarily from plastic, Wallace said.

Stanley Cup and water bottle disassembled on counter

Grab a reusable cup or bottle instead of using plastic disposable bottles.

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What can I do to help clean up ocean trash?

While a lot of the garbage is being produced by big corporations and dumped by ships, there are some things you can do on a personal level to help.

  • Avoid adding to the problem. For instance, stop littering and start using reusable water bottles and shopping bags instead of single-serve plastic bottles or plastic bags that can easily wind up in waterways.
  • If you live near an ocean, volunteer to help clean the shoreline to help remove debris on shores. 
  • If you don't live near an ocean, you can help clean up parks, local neighborhoods, stormwater drains and other waterways, as trash in those areas can eventually end up in marine environments. 
  • Donate to different organizations that support removing the trash, such as Ocean Conservancy and Oceana.
  • Shop at companies that are working toward sustainability. They'll typically have this info listed on their website -- for instance, Amazon has a sustainability page with its goals.
  • Vote in elections to support people in all levels of the government who advocate policies addressing climate change, including writing letters and making phone calls to your senators.

For more information, here's what a carbon footprint is and if yours matters. Also, climate denial is evolving on YouTube -- here's how to make sense of it.