NOAA's Marine Debris Blog

Keepin' the Sea Free of Debris!


Leave a comment

Debunking the Myths About Garbage Patches

Although most of us have heard the term “garbage patch” before, many probably don’t have a full understanding of what the term really means. In recent years, there has been a lot of misinformation spread about garbage patches and so now we’re here to try to clear up some of these myths.

Graphic of a garbage patch with the words "What are garbage patches?"

First, what are garbage patches? Well, garbage patches are areas of increased concentration of marine debris that are formed from rotating ocean currents called gyres and although they may not be as famous as the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” there are actually several garbage patches around the world! So let’s address some of the most common questions and misconceptions about garbage patches:

Are garbage patches really islands of trash that you can actually walk on? Nope! Although garbage patches have higher amounts of marine debris, they’re not “islands of trash” and you definitely can’t walk on them. The debris in the garbage patches is constantly mixing and moving due to winds and ocean currents. This means that the debris is not settled in a layer at the surface of the water, but can be found from the surface, throughout the water column, and all the way to the bottom of the ocean. Not only that, but the debris within the garbage patches is primarily made up of microplastics, which are plastic pieces less than five millimeters in size. Many of these microplastics are the result of larger plastic debris that has broken into small pieces due to exposure to the sun, salt, wind, and waves. Others, such as microbeads from products like facewashes or microfibers from synthetic clothing, are already small in size when they enter the water. With such small debris items making up the majority of the garbage patches and the constant movement of this debris, it’s possible to sail through a garbage patch without even realizing it!

I heard that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is the size of Texas and you can see it from space! Since the garbage patches are constantly moving and mixing with winds and ocean currents, their size continuously changes. They can be very large, but since they’re made up primarily of microplastic debris, they definitely can’t be seen from space.

A small piece of debris on the tip of someone's finger.

Since the garbage patches are primarily made up of very small microplastic debris that is constantly mixing throughout the water column, they definitely can’t be seen from space. (Photo Credit: NOAA)

Why don’t we just clean them up? Unfortunately, cleaning up the garbage patches is pretty complicated. Since the debris making them up is not only constantly mixing and moving, but also extremely small in size, removing this debris is very difficult. For these reasons, we generally focus removal efforts on our shorelines and coastal areas, before debris items have the chance to make it to the open ocean and before they have broken into microplastic pieces, which are inherently difficult to remove from the environment. However, preventing marine debris is the key to solving the problem! If you think about an overflowing sink, it’s obvious that the first step before cleaning up the water on the floor is to turn the faucet off—that’s exactly what prevention is! By working to prevent marine debris through education and outreach, and each doing our part to reduce our contribution, we can stop this problem from growing.

Want to learn more about the garbage patches? Check out this blog post or visit the NOAA Marine Debris Program website where you can find more information as well as our Trash Talk video on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

Interested in learning the truth behind other myths? Check out the NOAA Office of Response and Restoration website throughout the week for more myth debunking!


1 Comment

The Truth About Garbage Patches

You’ve likely heard the term “garbage patch” many times and it’s possible that this is what comes to mind:

A thick mass of marine debris floating at the surface of the water.

A thick, floating mass of marine debris is what most people picture when they think of the garbage patch. However, this is actually pretty inaccurate. (Photo Credit: NOAA)

Although this is what most people picture when they think of a “garbage patch,” that’s actually pretty inaccurate. Let’s set the record straight and get to the truth about garbage patches.

First off, garbage patches have been wildly misrepresented in the media in the past, causing confusion on the subject and leading many to believe that there is a large “island of trash” in the Pacific Ocean—at least the size of Texas!— that you can walk around on. This is extremely far from reality.

To start, when people talk about “the garbage patch,” they are usually referring to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in the Pacific Ocean—one of many garbage patches located throughout our global ocean. These garbage patches are formed as a result of rotating ocean currents called “gyres,” which pull debris into their center, creating areas with higher concentrations of marine debris. Because currents like these are dynamic, the size of these concentrated areas is constantly changing, making it extremely difficult to estimate the size of garbage patches. To learn more about ocean currents and the way they move debris, check out our webpage on how debris accumulates.

A diagram of ocean currents and their relative location in relation to garbage patches.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, or the “Subtropical Convergence Zone,” as seen in this diagram, is one of many garbage patches located throughout our global ocean. (Photo Credit: NOAA)

Secondly, there is no “island of trash” and you definitely can’t walk on the garbage patch. In reality, garbage patches are made up of lots of types of debris. Although you may find larger debris items floating on the surface of the water such as plastic bottles or derelict fishing nets, the majority of debris found in garbage patches is microplastics. These small plastic pieces (less than 5mm in size) are often formed from larger plastic that has broken down into smaller and smaller fragments due to exposure to the elements (plastic never truly breaks down, it just breaks into ever-smaller pieces), but can also come from products that include plastic manufactured at that size (microbeads) or from synthetic fabric that has gone through the washing machine (microfibers).

Not only is the majority of garbage patch debris extremely small, but it’s also not all located on the surface. Debris is found on the surface, throughout the water column, and all the way down to the seafloor. You can picture it more like pepper flakes swirling around in soup rather than a floating mass at the top. For these reasons, it’s actually possible to sail through a garbage patch (yes, even the Great Pacific Garbage Patch) and not even realize it!

A clean-looking, open ocean.

It’s possible to sail right through a garbage patch without even realizing it! (Photo Credit: NOAA)

Even though the above scene looks alright, it actually includes high concentrations of marine debris. This debris, even the small stuff, can have many harmful impacts on us and our environment. The question that usually comes up next is “why can’t we just go and clean up the garbage patch?!” Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Open ocean cleanups are extremely difficult. Logistically, the large size and dynamic nature of the garbage patches, as well as the fact that they include debris all the way from the surface to the seafloor, makes this type of cleanup impractical, extremely costly, and really, almost impossible. Not only are there logistical concerns, but the abundance of marine life that calls these areas home can be substantially negatively impacted. We have to think, “Are we doing more harm than good?”

Because of the difficulties of directly cleaning up garbage patches, we instead focus on cleaning up our shorelines and on prevention, which is the highest priority. If we don’t stop marine debris at its source, we’ll just be cleaning it up forever! We can each contribute to these efforts by remembering to reuse, reduce, and recycle. If we each worked to reduce our impact, think what a difference we would make!

For more information on garbage patches, check out our website. You may also be interested in some of our other blog posts on the subject (check out this post and this post). In addition, stay tuned to our social media this week as we continue to talk about the garbage patch and highlight some of the cool products we have to help you learn all about it!

Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.