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The Great Pacific Garbage 'Patch' Much Bigger Than Previously Thought


The Great Pacific garbage patch is a huge swath of debris swirling around between Hawaii and California. Some of it comes from fishing boats some has been washed off the land and most of it is plastic. NPR's Christopher Joyce reports on a new survey that shows that the garbage patch is even bigger than we realized.

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE, BYLINE: Patch is hardly the word. It's twice as big as Texas, but the trash is widely dispersed. Oceanographer Laurent Lebreton from The Ocean Cleanup foundation was on the team that surveyed it. Flying overhead, all he saw was blue ocean. Then they flew lower.

LAURENT LEBRETON: And, you know, you recognize the objects. Oh, there's a buoy. Oh, there's a bottle. And it's crazy because, you know, there's nothing else around, right?

JOYCE: Just floating debris.

LEBRETON: We found that most of the material is comprised of larger debris, a lot of plastic from fishing nets and buoys and ropes and those kind of things.

JOYCE: The team also deployed ships with nets that found lots of micro-plastics, tiny pieces down to 1/40th of an inch. That's what becomes of bigger pieces that gradually break down. Based on what they found, they estimate the patch contains 4 to 16 times as much stuff as previous surveys did. Lebreton says the higher amounts could mean there's more trash than before or that their survey methods are more accurate or both. Actually, Lebreton thought he'd find even more plastic in the patch because it's estimated that about 8 million tons of plastic goes into the ocean every year.

LEBRETON: Obviously, a lot of plastic is missing. And one explanation is, yes, a lot of it is likely sinking on the seabed.

NICK MALLOS: I think that underscores this ongoing age-old question, where is all the missing plastics?

JOYCE: Nick Mallos is a debris expert at the Ocean Conservancy, an environmental group. Ocean scientists only recently realized how much plastic washes into the ocean and now are trying to figure out where it all ends up.

MALLOS: There's a lot of pathways along the way, whether it's sinking into sediments, whether it's being ingested by marine organisms, whether it is actually being spit out onto the beaches.

JOYCE: The smallest bits are of great concern, since plankton and shellfish eat them. The plastic works its way up the food chain to fish and, presumably, to people who eat fish. But one lesson from the latest survey, which appears in the journal Nature Scientific Reports, is that fishing gear is a huge problem. Nets lost by fishing boats called ghost nets continue to trap and kill fish as they float on forever. Also, there are so-called fishing aggregation devices. Boats put them in the water to attract fish, things as simple as a bundle of plastic line or a plastic float. These, too, get lost. Cleaning up this oceanic dump would be extremely difficult. Mallos it makes sense to pinch it off at the source.

MALLOS: Major river arteries, coastal environments where the debris is most concentrated before dispersing into the open ocean is a critical first step to take.

JOYCE: And then, hopefully, clean up the mess in the ocean. Christopher Joyce, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Christopher Joyce is a correspondent on the science desk at NPR. His stories can be heard on all of NPR's news programs, including NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition.