Everything You Think You Know About the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is Wrong

Nearly 1,200 miles from land in the middle of the Pacific Ocean lies a sliver of water approximately twice the size of Texas that’s home to a growing collection of debris from around the world. Brought there by the Pacific Gyre, a series of ocean currents creating a vortex, this piece of the Pacific is most notable for how much garbage it contains. It is called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP), and you have probably already heard of it.

The GPGP was discovered in 1997, and highly publicized thereafter. It was named “Trash Isles,” and in 2017 a group petitioned the United Nations for official recognition as a new country. All of this publicity and infamy has contributed to various untruths about the place, such as that it can be seen from space (it can’t). However, one truth is evident: The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a lasting symbol for how the linear, take-make-waste way of consumption is having detrimental and long-lasting effects on our planet.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch Flows Like Gravy

Other various misimpressions of the GPGP include the fact that it is an island of garbage of all kinds in the middle of the ocean, so thick you could walk upon it, deposited by straw-drinkers and plastic-bag carriers from all over the world. This is wrong on all counts.

For one thing, the GPGP is not thick enough to walk on. On the surface, the GPGP is not so much trash-filled water as it is a trash slurry—water infused with so much trash that it flows like gravy. Not thick enough to stand on, but thick enough that it no longer resembles the ocean at all. This slurry is interspersed with occasional bits of trash large enough to see, which are churned endlessly in the vortex until they break apart into even smaller pieces.

Says Alli Maloney at Teen Vogue, who spent 21 days traveling to and through the GPGP:

“I found myself with my hands in the sea, pulling out toilet brush handles, bleach bottles, laundry baskets, a suspension band usually found in hard hats. There was a disposable razor handle, hydrogen peroxide container, toolbox top, flower pot, water cooler lid, luggage wheel, buckets, a VHS cassette box with a fish inside of it, an unopened bottle of carbonated water, and a piece of Astroturf. White objects were the easiest to spot, but it came in all colors and shapes, fully intact, visibly torn.”

It gets worse under the surface. Smaller and smaller particles of trash plunge deeper and deeper until they are microscopic and ingested by ocean wildlife, and then by us.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is Largely Plastic

The second common error in perception about the GPGP is that it is made up of all kinds of trash. It is not. It is largely plastic—1.8 trillion pieces of plastic to be precise, weighing nearly 90,000 tons. When Ben Lecomte, a 52-year-old French long-distance swimmer swam across the GPGP in 2019 for a project he dubbed the Vortex Swim, he chose to swim through the areas with the highest concentrations of debris.

The majority of this plastic debris (94 percent) is microplastic, pieces smaller than 5mm in size—small enough to be consumed and go unnoticed until they pass all the way up the food chain and then out of our bodies, doing who-knows-what type of biological harm at every step of the way.

The next major misconception about the GPGP is that it’s mainly plastic straws and water bottles. This, again, is not true. While straws and bottles make up a large volume of the plastic trash that gets media attention, the GPGP is comprised mostly of fishing waste. Plastic-lined nets, buoys, ropes, and other detritus generated and discarded by the fishing industry.

A recent study found that approximately 50 percent of the waste in the GPGP is made up of this fishing industry waste, including so-called “ghost nets,” fishing nets discarded either on purpose or accidentally that are then left to drift through the ocean trapping and killing various forms of sea life.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is Actually Two Patches

Another misconception about the GPGP is that it is one “trash island.” It is not. The GPGP is actually two patches of trash, one in the Western Pacific, closer to Japan, and the one in the Eastern Pacific that we are much more familiar with, between Hawaii and California. These two patches of trash are bounded on both sides by a stable system of currents known as the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, rotating clockwise in the massive ocean.

Trash entering the ocean off the coast of any country along the Pacific Rim will be subjected to these currents and eventually make its way into the calmer waters in the center of the Gyre. A bottle from Mexico will float alongside a fishing net from China, or a plastic doll from California. It all gets churned around a nearly eight million square mile region into the same place, the GPGP.

There is also a perception that the waste in the GPGP all comes from China or other East Asian countries. While it is true that much of the waste does come from China, the fact is China is merely a waypoint for much of the waste, which originates in Western countries.

For years, and until recently, China was the recipient of waste from all over the world. It would recycle, remanufacture, or landfill the waste, and some of it would escape out to sea. Now that China has stopped accepting the world’s waste, that role is being filled by other East Asian countries.

Critics have argued that those countries need to do a better job of policing this waste, but it is an inescapable fact of life in the garbage debate that if there was less waste being shipped, there would be less waste slipping into the ocean. And there would be less waste being shipped if there was less waste being created in the first place. We have all played a part in creating the GPGP.

This all plays into the final misperception about the GPGP, which is that it’s somebody else’s problem. Waste in the ocean, even 1,200 miles away, enters the food chain and water systems of countries all over the world. The food you are eating and the water you are drinking contains microplastics—broken down particles of waste deposited in the GPGP. And some of that waste could have come from your neighborhood.

To learn more about Rubicon’s work transforming the entire category of waste and recycling, be sure to download our inaugural Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) Report.


David Rachelson is Chief Sustainability Officer at Rubicon. To stay ahead of Rubicon’s announcements of new partnerships and collaborations around the world, be sure to follow us on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter, or contact us today.