23 Nov 2018


Rome, the Eiffel Tower, Sydney Opera House: Humanity is capable of producing beautiful and awe-inspiring creations.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch isn't one of these.

This island of floating plastic trash, which as of 2018 spans roughly around 1.6 million square km, bears witness to today's throwaway culture. It highlights the lack of understanding of how seriously our daily habits can affect wildlife.

So how did the Great Pacific Garbage Patch form? More importantly, how can we destroy it?

Where did the Great Pacific Garbage Patch come from?

Plastic waste and sofa discarded on a beach in Greece on the Mediterranean Sea
© Milos Bicanski / WWF-UK

How exactly does an accumulation of plastic waste twice the size of Texas come to be floating in the waters between Hawaii and California?

To understand how the 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic arrived in their current location, we need to answer two questions:

1. How does plastic get into the ocean?

There is so much plastic in the world. More than eight million tonnes of plastics enters the world’s oceans every year. Here are some common ways:

  • Through rivers - Scientific research suggests that as much as 90% of marine plastic debris enters our oceans through 10 of the world’s rivers. This doesn’t necessarily involve plastics being dumped directly into rivers (though unfortunately this does happen). Due to its lightweight nature, it’s easy for plastics en route to landfill to escape containment. This can then enter waterways and eventually, our oceans. Even more simply, the litter left behind by beach-goers will soon be swept out by the tide.
  • From boats - An estimated 20% of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch trash comes from ships and offshore oil rigs. This can be anything from angling enthusiasts cutting loose their nets on a fishing trip, to large cargo ships losing or dumping significant quantities of waste.
  • From factories - Factories producing, transporting or disposing of plastics sometimes don’t take sufficient care. This contributes significantly to the amount of marine debris. Ironically, small plastic pellets used in the production of plastic are commonly found on beaches around the world.
  • Down the drain - The journey of plastics to the ocean can also start in our bathrooms. A high profile example involves the recent banning of microbeads by several countries, though notably not Australia. These tiny plastic balls are found in common items such as exfoliants, shower gels and glitter-based makeup. Sadly, many people aren’t aware of their presence when purchasing these products. However, microbeads aren’t the only culprits. Cotton buds, sanitary products and face wipes often contain plastic. Some will escape cleansing operations at wastewater plants and make it to the ocean.

2. Why does this ocean plastic all end up in one place?

Well, it doesn’t.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is the result of a gyre - a large system of rotating ocean currents. There are four others on the planet.

These vortexes draw in plastics travelling on oceanic currents, and hold them together in huge zones. The Great Pacific Garbage patch is the biggest, and sits in the north Pacific Ocean.

What happens to the plastic at the Great Pacific Garbage Patch?

Plastic pollution - a plastic bag and rubbish float in the ocean
© Shutterstock / Rich Carey / WWF

There are two properties of plastic that make it such a visible problem in our oceans:

  1. It's light - Many plastic objects won't sink.
  2. It's durable - Because plastic is relatively new, we don't know exactly how long it takes to break down. For example, plastic bags could take as long as 500 years.

Therefore, the majority of the plastic in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch will simply float there. Gradually, they’ll be worn down by the waves and sunlight.

Even when this happens, the plastic doesn’t simply disappear entirely. Instead it becomes microplastics. It’s estimated that microplastics make up 94% of the object count at the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. A square kilometre of it can contain as many as 750,000 individual pieces.   

What are the dangers of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch?

A mute swan paddles through plastic pollution in The River Thame in Greater Manchester
© Sam Hobson / WWF-UK

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and plastic pollution generally, is killing marine life.

1 million seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals are affected every year, as well as many other species. For example, turtles often mistake plastic bags for prey such as jellyfish. Abandoned fishing lines, fishing nets and equipment can ensnare and drown dolphins, porpoises and whales.

Even humans aren’t free from the potential dangers of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Microplastics have been found in the stomachs of nearly half of the most important species for global fisheries. This means we could be eating our own trash.

While the immediate medical risks are negligible, as most of the microplastics found in fish are in the guts, the future is a lot less certain.

As microplastics continue to break down they form nanoplastics. Nanoplastics have the capacity to enter muscle tissues - the part of fish we do eat. If these plastics make their way up the food chain and into our bodies, there are concerns over potential health implications.

How can I impact the Great Pacific Garbage Patch?

The enormous size of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch makes knowing where to start combatting it seem overwhelming.

The good news is that we can start by changing everyday behaviours. Here’s how:

  • Pledge to #ReduceYourUse - Buying less amounts of plastic means less will end up in landfill, and in the ocean.
  • Recycle - It seems simple, but only 12% of the 3 million tonnes of plastic produced in Australia each year is recycled.
  • Make your voice heard - Encourage your supermarket to reduce packaging, or introduce a plastic free aisle.
  • Stop flushing plastics - If you, or someone you know, flushes plastics find alternative ways to dispose of them.
  • Get involved in ocean cleanups - Participate in beach or community cleanups, or organise a cleanup system yourself!