Great Pacific Garbage Patch’ Increased 100-Fold in 40 Years: Study

May 14, 2012 Updated: September 29, 2015

Plastic items that have accumulated in the so-called Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a mass the size of the state of Texas, have increased a hundredfold since the early 1970s, and has greatly impacted marine life nearby, according to new U.S.-based research.

The Garbage Patch can be described as a large vortex comprised mainly of broken down plastic, chemical sludge, and other flotsam that have been trapped in Pacific Ocean currents.

It is unclear how much of the garbage comes from land-based or ship-based sources, but some estimates say around 80 percent of the plastic trash comes from land, with items being sent down creeks, storm drains, or washing off beaches.

The garbage comes from all over the world and is carried by currents called the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre. The Garbage Patch lies in an area with generally slow-moving currents and winds.

Researchers with the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego said last week that in the past four decades, there was a 100-fold increase in garbage mass, causing huge changes to the ocean ecology.

In the study, published in the Biology Letters journal, scientists with the institute concentrated their research on the marine environment around 1,000 miles west of the coast of California, and documented “an alarming amount of human-generated trash, mostly broken down bits of plastic the size of a fingernail floating across thousands of miles of open ocean.”

Since the Garbage Patch is mainly comprised of tiny bits of plastic the size of confetti, the mass is difficult to view with satellites and the naked eye. It was only discovered in the late 1980s.

The researchers particularly studied the marine insect known as the “water strider” or “sea skater,” the relatives of the pond water skater that inhabit water surfaces and lay their eggs on flotsam. These insects lay their eggs on floating objects in the sea, including seashells, pumice, feather, and also small plastic trash particles in the Garbage Patch.

The study found that these insects “have exploited the influx of plastic garbage as new surfaces for their eggs,” which “has led to a rise in the insect’s egg densities.” This process would impact other animals in the region, including their predators, which are crabs. Meanwhile, the explosion of the insects’ population would lead to a dwindling supply in zoo plankton and fish larvae, which water striders eat.

“We’re seeing changes in this marine insect that can be directly attributed to the plastic,” Scripps graduate student Miriam Goldstein, the lead author in the study, said in a statement. The study pointed to a previous Scripps paper, which found that 9 percent of fish collected had plastic in their stomachs.

Goldstein stressed that it would be nearly impossible to clean up the Garbage Patch, due to its massive scale and how it is dispersed.

“Plastic only became widespread in [the] late ’40s and early ’50s, but now everyone uses it and, over a 40-year range, we’ve seen a dramatic increase in ocean plastic,” added Goldstein.

“Historically we have not been very good at stopping plastic from getting into the ocean—so hopefully, in the future, we can do better.”