NOAA's Marine Debris Blog

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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!

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Don’t Forget! The NOAA Marine Debris Program Art Contest Ends November 30th!

(Artwork by one of last year's winners: Emily E., Grade 1, Alaska)

(Artwork by one of last year’s winners: Emily E., Grade 1, Alaska)

There’s still time!

If you haven’t already, don’t forget to enter your artwork for the NOAA Marine Debris Program Art Contest by November 30th. If you want to bring awareness to the issue of marine debris and have a shot at being featured in the NOAA Marine Debris Program’s 2017 calendar, then make sure you get those pencils, markers, crayons, paints, or pens moving and get your creation mailed in!

We can’t wait to see all of this year’s entries!


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That’s Some Scary Stuff: Ghosts, Ghouls & Halloween Debris

Halloween is coming! Prepare to be scared, for Halloween comes with lots of frights: ghosts, ghouls and—that’s right—marine debris.

Unfortunately, Halloween often means more trash that can become marine debris. Wrappers are one of the top debris items throughout the year and the many candy wrappers that are part of this spooky holiday can substantially add to their accumulation.

Credit: Ocean Conservancy

Credit: Ocean Conservancy

So, as you’re trick-or-treating this year, think about the scary impact your actions can have on our ocean and Great Lakes! Make sure those wrappers are properly disposed of and if you’re handing out candy, consider some non-plastic options, such as goodies packaged in cardboard boxes that can be recycled. We can all be part of fighting the marine debris that haunts us!

As you’re trick-or-treating this Halloween, watch out for scares… Goblins! Monsters! Debris! BOO! (Drawing by Teeger B., Grade 8, California, art contest winner featured in the 2013 Marine Debris Calendar)

 


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Massive Open Online Course on Marine Litter Starts Monday!

It’s here! The first Massive Open Online Course on Marine Litter starts this Monday, October 26th!

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), which serves as the secretariat of the Global Partnership on Marine Litter (GPML), is launching the first Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) on marine litter today, prepared in collaboration with The Open Universiteit in the Netherlands. Nancy Wallace, the Director of the NOAA Marine Debris Program and Chair of UNEP’s GMPL, contributed a lecture to this curriculum.

This course can be accessed for free by people all over the world and provides examples and case studies of marine debris issues that will help to inspire leadership and stimulate creative solutions to the problem. Students can choose to enroll in the “leadership track” for a two-week course and then continue to an eight-week “expert track”, if they wish to learn more.

Click here if you would like to enroll!

UNEP's Massive Open Online Course on Marine Litter starts Monday, October 26th!

UNEP’s Massive Open Online Course on Marine Litter starts Monday, October 26th!


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The Dangers of Marine Debris: A Sad Story

Marine debris can be a dangerous problem for the animals that inhabit the marine environment. Unfortunately, we recently saw this first-hand on a Florida beach. A melon-headed whale that was recovered along Florida’s east coast died due to a large plastic bag in its digestive system. NOAA Fisheries’ stranding network staff, partnering with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute responded to the call about a stranding on Riviera Beach. A decision was made to euthanize the whale after vets at the Palm Beach Zoo determined that the animal was in very poor condition and extremely thin. A necropsy (a non-human autopsy) was performed by a veterinarian to discover the cause of the animal’s poor health and subsequent death, during which a large plastic bag was found to be blocking the whale’s intestinal tract. The whale had suffered from starvation due to the blockage.

This is a sad reminder of the impact of marine debris. Every piece of debris matters. Animals can mistake trash for food or accidentally ingest it when consuming actual food items. However, we can help! By properly disposing of our trash, following the three R’s (reduce, reuse, recycle), helping to educate others, and by cleaning up our shorelines and waterways by getting involved in cleanup events, we can fight the marine debris problem and work to avoid outcomes like this in the future. To learn more about how you can help, visit our website.

The plastic bag found within a melon-headed whale's digestive tract. (Photo Credit: FAU Harbor Branch)

The plastic bag found within a melon-headed whale’s digestive tract. (Photo Credit: FAU Harbor Branch)


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California’s “First Flush”

By: Sherry Lippiatt, California Regional Coordinator for the NOAA Marine Debris Program

Marine debris along the California coast. (Photo Credit: Heal the Bay)

Marine debris along the California coast. (Photo Credit: Heal the Bay)

Some parts of Southern California have already had record rainfalls this wet season, thanks to storms that moved through in mid-September. The state desperately needs the rain, but not the marine debris that comes with it. Major rainstorms inevitably lead to runoff, which can mobilize and turn upstream litter into marine debris downstream. Unfortunately, this yearly influx of much-needed rains often translates to a surge of marine debris, or the “first flush.”

This year could be a particularly wet one for California. The National Weather Service is predicting a wetter than average year with El Niño, which brings more marine debris concerns, as sights such as seen in these photos are common after major winter storms.

So what can we do? For starters, the easiest thing is to continue to reduce, reuse, and recycle to cut off debris at the source. If wet or windy weather is in the forecast, try to schedule a neighborhood cleanup before the storm, and consider not leaving your full garbage, recycling, or compost bins on the street until the weather has passed.

The upside is that local efforts to intercept and filter out solid debris in runoff are on the rise. As you might have read in a previous blog, a NOAA study showed that reducing marine debris on Southern California beaches can prevent financial loss and provide economic benefits to residents. Preventing litter from becoming marine debris is good news for our beaches and our wallets!

Marine debris along the Santa Monica coastline in Southern California after the “first flush,” the first Fall season rain. (Photo Credit: Heal the Bay)

Marine debris along the Santa Monica coastline in Southern California after the “first flush,” the first Fall season rain. (Photo Credit: Heal the Bay)


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Now Open: the Annual NOAA Marine Debris Program Art Contest

Get your art supplies ready, because this year’s NOAA Marine Debris Program Art Contest is now officially open!

Students grades K-8 can submit artwork through November 30th that answers the questions:

• How does marine debris impact the oceans and Great Lakes?
• What are you doing to help prevent marine debris?

Winning entries will be featured in our 2017 Marine Debris Calendar. Be creative and help raise awareness about marine debris! For a complete list of contest rules, visit our website and download the student entry form and art contest flyer.

Ready… set… draw!

The Annual NOAA Marine Debris Art Contest is now open! (drawing by winner Armanita L., Grade 7, Washington, featured on the 2014 Marine Debris Calendar)

The Annual NOAA Marine Debris Art Contest is now open! (drawing by winner Armanita L., Grade 7, Washington, featured on the 2014 Marine Debris Calendar)

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