In the vast stretch of ocean between California and Hawaii, there’s a patch of plastic twice the size of Texas—and it’s between four and 16 times the size scientists previously thought.
Researchers drew this surprising conclusion by analyzing 7,000 aerial photographs of the so-called Great Pacific Garbage Patch. This method, they say, is more precise than earlier estimates made based on observations from boats. But there’s likely a secondary reason that the patch is so much larger than last estimated: it’s growing.
Laurent Lebreton, the lead researcher of the study, saw the growing patch for himself. Here are Merrit Kennedy and Christopher Joyce, reporting for NPR:
Lebreton, an oceanographer with The Ocean Cleanup Foundation, describes the experience of flying over the trash.
“You start to see one debris, two debris, three debris and so on,” he told NPR. “Oh, there’s a crate, oh, there’s a buoy, oh, there’s a bottle. And it’s crazy because there’s nothing else around. There’s no land mass, there’s no humans, there’s nothing.”
About eight million tons—that’s roughly 200,000 tractor trailers’ worth—of plastic garbage drifts out to sea each year. Half of what makes it to the garbage patch is fishing nets; much of the rest is debris that comes through rivers or washes off coasts. Based on the Japanese text discernible on about 30% of the debris, researchers suspect that a great deal of it was washed out to sea by the tsunami that struck Japan in 2011.
But the patch, created by a Pacific Ocean-wide whirlpool caused by the Earth’s rotation, only accounts for about 76,000 tons of plastic. While that’s a lot, it’s less than a tenth of what gets washed to sea in a single year. No one knows exactly what happens to the rest. Researchers believe that much of the less buoyant plastic sinks to the seafloor, while some other portion of it gets consumed by sea creatures or washed back up to shore.
As for the plastic that does make it to the patch, out of sight does not mean out of mind. As the debris breaks down into microplastics, or often-invisible particles less than five millimeters across, it’s easily ingested by marine life and begins to make its way up the food chain. Scientists are still working on understanding how ingesting microplastics can harm different living things.
Before attempting a cleanup, researchers say that the first priority needs to be prevention—keeping fishing materials from getting lost at sea and stopping debris from leaving our coasts in the first place.