Deep Sea News

Plastic Trash Lines the Pacific

One of our astute readers pointed us to this piece published in today’s The independent titled The world’s rubbish dump: a garbage tip that stretches from Hawaii to Japan. IF EVER there was a reason to join Craig in his Just One Thing Challenge. Now is the time!

“A “plastic soup” of waste floating in the Pacific Ocean is growing at an alarming rate and now covers an area twice the size of the continental United States, scientists have said.

The vast expanse of debris – in effect the world’s largest rubbish dump – is held in place by swirling underwater currents. This drifting “soup” stretches from about 500 nautical miles off the Californian coast, across the northern Pacific, past Hawaii and almost as far as Japan.”

Here is a graphic from Greenpeace. Please note that their currents aren’t exactly correct as discovered by Miriam over at The Oyster’s Garter. Come on GP, get your stuff together…


Here is a map from wikipedia commons showing an accurate portrayal of surface currents. Regardless of the map issue, there is an ENORMOUS pile of trash in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Is this acceptable?


Click to Enlarge.


  1. #1 Miriam Goldstein
    February 5, 2008

    Kevin! They still haven’t fixed the thrice-accursed circulation! The poor Kuroshio is still headed the wrong way.

  2. #2 Miriam Goldstein
    February 5, 2008

    Ooops. That lower graphic took a long time to load. Never mind. :>)

  3. #3 Nico
    February 5, 2008

    We’ve tried to reduce our plastic bag use and recycle the few that come in. It’s a battle. Locally, people don’t feel they need to pay the 5 cent “disincentive” to get plastic bags, and shop clerks still like double/triple bagging stuff regardless of your wishes, and even if you have a backpack or canvas shopper.

    The other issue is that some genius decided to make bags extra huge and super thin, which has been utterly counterproductive, plastic reduction wise.

    We’ll keep trying. We’re a 90% plastic bag free house now,and have been for a year now, we recycle, and we’re slowly trying to reduce what goes in the garbage at all.

    The other downside here is sewage is dumped right into the harbor. The waterfront smells, there’s trash. It could be the high point of the city and it smells like hell.

  4. #4 Lassi Hippeläinen
    February 5, 2008

    Time to develop a boat engine that burns plastic as fuel…

  5. #5 Dunc
    February 6, 2008

    Hmmm… Scoop it up, filter it, thermally reform it back into raw hydrocarbons…

    Seriously, I’m confident that at some point in the (not too distant) future, all the crap we’ve thrown away in the last 50-100 years is going to be viewed as a major resource.

  6. #6 JasonR
    February 6, 2008

    Can you really call all the plastic in the Pacific a “patch” when it aggregates into an area larger than Texas.

  7. #7 Kiki
    February 6, 2008
  8. #8 Lassi Hippeläinen
    February 6, 2008

    There is also the straightforward way: burn it and drive the gases through a turbine.

    After floating in the sea for years, most of that garbage is pure plastic. All organic stuff has been eaten away. Some of it may contain halogens (like PVC), but the rest should burn quite cleanly even in low temperatures.

  9. #9 kevin z
    February 6, 2008

    There are some interesting suggestions here! I don’t thinking reburning the plastic is a good idea though because it releases all that locked up carbon back into atmosphere. How about a U.N. fleet of trawl ships that seine the oceans for trash which gets dropped off at recycling centers at major ports (or smaller fishing villages) where it gets sorted, melted and reshaped into new items.

    This put trawlers to work on something other than overfishing, can give ex-fishermen jobs at the recycling plants and makes the oceans safer for both people and animals. Make it a U.N. project so all countries are involved since oceans are global institution.

    What do you think of this idea?

  10. #10 Sven DiMIlo
    February 6, 2008

    And of course those same surface currents that concentrate the plastic also concentrate those nice buoyant little juvenile sea turtles, to whom plastic looks like a nice cnidarian snack…

  11. #11 CC
    February 6, 2008

    What do you think of this idea?

    I saw this story in Scuba Diving last month and had exactly the same thought. I don’t know how small you’d have to go on mesh size to be useful, but it seems like there would be a sweet spot there that wouldn’t obliterate all life.

  12. #12 Jennifer L. Jacquet
    February 6, 2008

    Guys, I love what you’ve done with the place. Love the new banner, new energy (KZ), and the rapid fire posts. Nice work! Happy Chinese New Year!

  13. #13 Lassi Hippeläinen
    February 6, 2008

    Re: burning the plastic – the release of carbon wouldn’t be a big issue, because plastic would in effect replace oil as fuel. It may sound sickening, but in this context plastic is in practice a renewable resource!

    But after sleeping over the night, I noticed a real problem: there would still be some salt left in the plastic shreds. Burning would produce HCl, which is pretty nasty stuff.

    But still, any scifi writers out there who need an idea for a story, please feel free to use the idea…

    Re: trawling and transporting ashore – it has lower efficiency. As a fuel, the plastic would be used “on location”, and the boat could use its cargo bay for a payload.

  14. #14 D. Blake
    February 7, 2008

    I don’t understand why people blame plastic bags. (Yes I recycle and don’t use plastic bags.) But how could that many plastic bags be the problem? Help me understand. I think the garbage is from ships and industries dumping into the ocean, not from people walking on the beach. I am tired of feeling guilty about my water, gas, etc use when big industries are the real problem. Have to find a way to get rid of it that makes money or no one is going to do anything. I hope who ever becomes President goes out to visit the area and does something about it.

  15. #15 Y
    February 7, 2008

    @ D. Blake… Have you taken a good look at the side of your freeways? Or driven near a garbage dump? The one near my home has a large pond with access to a river… Completely filled with the glory of white plastic bags.

  16. #16 kevin z
    February 7, 2008

    To follow up on Y’s comment, multiply the trash on your local freeway by 6 billion, the population of the earth. Sure industry is partly to blame. At least in western countries and some leading developing countries, industry is more or less regulated. People aren’t regulated. It could be arguable whether or not the public is more to blame than the industry. I’ve never seen the data either way. But try the calculation out as a thought experiment.

  17. #17 yogi-one
    February 9, 2008

    I hope dunc @ #5 is right. When it becomes lucrative to recycle used plastic, hopefully the market will start working it’s magic…

    And kevin z is also right. And he’s just talking about the USA. You want to see rivers of flowing plastic trash and toxins? Try India, China, or a host of other Third World nations.

    We have a global problem here. Although isolated individual households doing their part is a heroic effort, we really do need an international solution, and some regulation that stimulates recycle/reuse by making it more profitable.

    The USA is going to have to stop being an idealogical enemy of the UN at some point. Maybe under a new White House administration, we can tone down the UN-hating, and actually get some collaborative work done.

  18. #18 SteveL
    February 9, 2008

    Unfortunately, there is no realistic fix. We are talking about stuff that is often minuscule in size, spread out over an enormous remote area, contaminated with sea water and stuff growing on it, and weighs 100 million tons!

    We as a species actually need to stop producing and using so much plastic.

    Alan Weisman’s excellent book, The World Without Us, has a section about this gyre on page 122. Most of the plastic garbage comes from the land. Since plastic doesn’t biodegrade, it overtime, blows in the wind or flows down rivers until it reaches the sea. Currents then take it all over the oceans, with much of it ending up in the huge North Pacific gyre.

    More from the book:

    There is six times more plastic than plankton on the gyre’s surface! In India alone, 5,000 processing plants produce plastic bags. Kenya makes 4000 tons of plastic a month with no potential for recycling. Filter-feeders such as jellyfish and salps try to eat the plastic nurdles that litter the ocean by the billions thinking them to be fish eggs or krill. Toxins from plastic are contaminating the food chain.

    All of this plastic has appeared in barely more than 50 years. Except for a small amount that’s been incinerated, all of it is still with us somewhere in the environment. It surpasses 1 billion tons and continues to accumulate at a high rate.

  19. #19 kevin z
    February 9, 2008

    Jellies aren’t filter-feeders, they are passive predators.

    Sure, we need stop producing it, but that doesn’t diminish the damage done. That needs to be mitigated somehow and a discussion needs to go on how to do that without harming sea life. I don’t have an answer right now, but I would love to see a working group on it from the UN or even just out government.

    I can envision oceanographers from 1000 years in the future and doing cores in the deep sea sediment, finding a weird thin layer of plastic strata in between 2 anoxic layers. lol

  20. #20 Damon
    March 8, 2008

    How come there aren’t any photos of this trash island? I keep hearing about it, but all we see are drawings. If it’s the size of Hawaii why can’t we get a snap shot. Now that would be compelling.

  21. #21 Philip H.
    April 3, 2008

    “How come there aren’t any photos of this trash island? I keep hearing about it, but all we see are drawings. If it’s the size of Hawaii why can’t we get a snap shot. Now that would be compelling.”
    Well, have you seen this:

    Or this:

  22. #22 Adam
    April 3, 2008

    I suspect the density of this massive garbage patch is relatively thin, which is why you’re not seeing pictures of floating plastic bags as far as the eye can see. That’s not to say it’s not an issue, just that the issue is at a scale that’s hard to immediately grasp (large area, low density).

  23. #23 Luke Allen
    October 28, 2008

    I liked #9 idea. I have a large ship and if I could get initial funding I would start tomorrow.

  24. #24 PhilAshley
    January 4, 2009

    I would like to see any updates about this floating garbage dump in the pacific. Please send anything vidio wise.if that is possible

  25. #25 Becky S.
    January 26, 2009

    I’m a high school teacher and recycling is abominable on our campus. Any pics or wake-up facts that anyone can share? Thanks!

  26. #26 Janet Kelly
    March 4, 2009

    Could a recycling barge designed to make money from the plastic waste be an option?

  27. #27 Matthew Miller
    April 22, 2009

    I’m with #20. Not that I’m not concerned about our oceans… I absolutely am. I love fish and fishing and I require a clean habitat for both. But the reason that so many people are NOT as concerned as I or you may be is simply because MANY MANY TIMES environmentalists have NOTHING to back up their wild claims. I want to see videos, photos, and satellite imagery next to EVERY SINGLE ARTICLE THAT STATES: SEA TRASH THE SIZE OF TEXAS. Otherwise, you guys look guilty of propoganda. I believe you… therefore you owe me a picture depicting your claims. Put up… or shut up! It’s really that simple.

  28. #28 Craig Whaley
    August 4, 2009

    I just wanted to log on and agree with #27. SINCERELY…I am ALL for conservation and the preservation of our planet. HOWEVER…when I spend a solid HOUR on the internet looking for ONE PICTURE OR IMAGE of this plastic trash is VERY difficult to get enthusiastic about solving a problem…much less defending it’s legitimacy to doubters. My question is simple…is there even ONE definitive picture of this trash site. I am HONESTLY asking that I may further investigate this problem with an intention of working to solve it. Someone…ANYONE. Has ANYONE ACTUALLY PHOTOGRAPHED THIS THING???

  29. #29 joepescie
    September 6, 2009

    I have read some coments about ships and companies that dump stuff over board into the ocean. They are tottaly right,, for example the US NAVY claims that they dont dump plastic trash over boar. But they do they also dump all kinds of trash and they do it at night so they whont be any type of evidence that they did it. Also China and India are getting all kinds of money to get their industries going but they are pollutting the hell out of the world why we have to pay for the greed of others????

  30. #30 Navy Guy
    October 12, 2009

    -The US Navy doesn’t dump plastic overboard (with the exception of your odd sailor here and there).
    -The USN does dump other things (i.e. food waste and metal bound so it’ll sink, paper products) but it’s not a secret and they do it at all times of the day, not furtively at night.

    The gyre is underwater, so it’s very difficult to photograph. Which is a shame because, as you point out, it is hard to garner support to get rid of a problem that you can’t see!

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