The Pacific Ocean is being treated like a giant dumpster — and it’s starting to look like one, too. A “floating” island of trash dubbed the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP) now stretches 600,000 square miles, according to a study published Thursday in Scientific Reports.
It’s more than twice the size of Texas (three times the size of France), and it’s growing every day.
Environmentalists expressed concern in October 2016 after a team of researchers from The Ocean Cleanup Foundation surveyed the vortex of trash piling up between California and Hawaii, spotting chunks of plastic glued together measuring more than a yard.
“[It’s a] ticking time bomb because the big stuff will crumble down to micro-plastics over the next few decades if we don’t act,” Boyan Slat, founder of Ocean Cleanup, a nonprofit that helps remove pollution from the world’s oceans, told Newser at the time.
The size of the trash pile has nearly doubled in size since then, containing at least 79,000 tons of plastic — “a figure four to sixteen times higher than previously reported,” Scientific Reports said.
Researchers gathered 1.2 million samples during a multi-vessel expedition in October 2017, exactly one year after their previous test.
They used large nets to scoop the debris and took several aerial images to examine the extent of the GPGP.
Large items such as bottles, ropes, plastic bags and buoys were the most common objects spotted in the pile. Fishing nets had an overwhelming presence, accounting for nearly half of the weight of debris picked up by research vessels.
Microscopic particles made up less than 10 percent of the mass collected by researchers.
“We were surprised by the amount of large plastic objects we encountered,” Dr. Julia Reisser, the chief scientist of the expeditions, said in a statement online. “We used to think most of the debris consists of small fragments, but this new analysis shines a new light on the scope of the debris.”
Data from the nets proved more plastic is coming into the ocean than being cleaned up. But scientists didn’t realize how fast garbage was piling up.
“Historical data from surface net tows indicate that plastic pollution levels are increasing exponentially inside the GPGP, and at a faster rate than in surrounding waters,” the report said.
The findings were “depressing to see,” Laurent Lebreton, an oceanographer and lead author of the study, told The Guardian.
“There were things you just wondered how they made it into the ocean,” Lebreton said, adding that the group even found a toilet seat discarded into the sea. “There’s clearly an increasing influx of plastic into the garbage patch.”
Pollution is problematic for the environment and humans, but it’s especially troubling for marine life.
“Floating plastic litter can be ingested or entangle marine life, and carry invasive organisms across oceanic basins,” Matthew Cole, a research scientist with the Plymouth Marine Laboratory in the U.K., told New Scientist.
Lebreton hopes to find a way to curb plastic waste.
“We need a coordinated international effort to rethink and redesign the way we use plastics,” he said. “The numbers speak for themselves. Things are getting worse and we need to act now.”