NOAA Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center/AP/File
Debris swirls in Hanauma Bay, Hawaii, in 2008. The first-ever aerial survey of the massive gyre of floating trash in the Pacific Ocean suggests that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch may be even bigger than previously thought.

Great Pacific Garbage Patch is denser than previously thought

Currents in the Pacific Ocean between Hawaii and California contain much of the ocean's plastic pollution, whose density was measured by the first-ever aerial survey, led by The Ocean Cleanup.

When researchers flew over the swirling mass of trash known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch for a closer look, they weren't expecting it to be pretty. But what they found suggests the massive collection of discarded nets, garbage, and plastics floating in the middle of the Pacific Ocean might be even worse than they previously thought.

The patch has been steadily growing in size and density over the last few decades. Despite the scale of the problem, however, there had not been any aerial survey of the heart of the patch until now.

The mission was partially funded by the Dutch Government, and led by The Ocean Cleanup, a foundation dedicated to developing methods to rid the oceans of plastic pollution. Ocean Cleanup researchers have previously mapped the patch using a fleet of boats but found that the conventional boat-based method for measuring ocean plastic yielded inaccurate results. So they decided to take to the sky.

"In order to solve the plastic pollution problem, it is essential to understand its dimensions," said the organization in a blog post. "Knowing how much and what kind of plastic has accumulated in the ocean garbage patches is especially important. This determines the design of cleanup systems, the logistics of hauling plastic back to shore, the methods for recycling plastic, and the costs of the cleanup."

Using a modified C-130 Hercules aircraft, the expedition flew low over the heart of the patch, expecting to make a visual count of large pieces of debris, assisted by sensor data. But they soon found that the density of materials in the patch was much larger than they had anticipated.

"Normally when you do an aerial survey of dolphins or whales, you make a sighting and record it," Boyan Slat, the founder of the Ocean Cleanup, told The Guardian. "That was the plan for this survey. But then we opened the door and we saw the debris everywhere. Every half second you see something. So we had to take snapshots – it was impossible to record everything. It was bizarre to see that much garbage in what should be pristine ocean."

The team counted more than a thousand items that appeared to be more than a half a meter in size over the course of 2.5 hours.

Most of the items floating in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch are made of plastic, which does not biodegrade like other trash items do. Instead, plastic breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces and are often consumed by the smallest marine life. The plastic then works its way up the food chain, causing problems for fish and even for the humans that consume them. According to a study published in February of 2015, anywhere from 4.8 to 12.7 million metric tons of plastic was dumped into the ocean in 2010, and that amount has likely increased since then.

The Ocean Cleanup Project is set to conduct further aerial surveys in preparation for the development of their ambitious plan to begin plastic cleanup. In 2020, the foundation hopes to deploy a 100-km (62-mile) V-shaped boom to capture junk from the patch. There is a lot of work to be done before the boom can be deployed, but the organization hopes it will be able to clean out ocean plastic on a scale never before seen in human history.

"Everything is unknown so everything is a potential problem," Lourens Boot, the program’s chief engineer, told The Guardian in November of last year. "The risk matrix is big, but one by one we are tackling those risks."

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to

QR Code to Great Pacific Garbage Patch is denser than previously thought
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today