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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!


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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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Throwback Thursday to Talking Trash

By: NOAA Marine Debris Program staff

Today’s throwback Thursday is one for inquiring minds that wonder, “What is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch?”

Watch and listen as we have a little “Trash Talk” to help explain:


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A Little Earth Day Trash Talk

By: NOAA Marine Debris Program Staff

Let’s kick off this Earth Day celebration,  with some “Trash Talk”! The marine debris kind of course.

As a gift to our ocean planet, today we’re releasing our first video “What is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch?”  from our upcoming “Trash Talk” series with NOAA Ocean Today. Stay tuned to learn more about marine debris when we release the entire series World Ocean Day, June 8th, and throughout the month of June.


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Aboard the transoceanic invasive species mobile

By guest blogger Rebeka Ryvola, Ecologic Institute

When introduced into new environments, invasive species can be a major problem.  Invasives – species living in a certain area where they don’t belong – can harm the native species present or out-survive them and cause dramatic ecosystem changes. The changes are usually for the worse.

Humans are often unwittingly instrumental in helping these species infiltrate new territories, and we’re finding more and more evidence that marine debris is a culprit.

Invasive species stage their “invasions” in a number of ways. They can float through the air, travel by water currents, or cling to migrating animals. On land, species such as insects and plants can hitchhike by lurking in suitcases, in and on cars, on bicycles, and even on your clothing. Oceanic species – such as barnacles, mollusks, algae, and fish – can attach themselves to boats or stow away in ship ballast water.

When it comes to the ocean, ships are not the only means of transportation for invasives; efforts to stop these species are challenged by marine debris in our oceans and seas. It turns out that ocean-bound marine litter often offers potential invaders free round-the-world trips to entirely new territories and areas that may not be prepared for the influx of strange and competitive species.

In 2009, researcher David Barnes studied the remote Seychelles Islands and found that over 60 percent of marine litter he inspected harbored potentially invasive species. In the even-more-isolated Antarctic, home to many species found nowhere else on earth, the influx of invasive species-hosting debris has been found to be more common than previously thought.  In less remote regions, new species arrive frequently, and with few barriers.

Journalist Lindsey Hoshaw traveled to the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” and captured how species can get creative with their modes of garbage transportation:

Invasives can attach to chunks of trash like foamed plastic. Credit: Lindsey Hoshaw

Nets tangled in debris

A floating mat of debris. Credit: Lindsey Hoshaw

Crate, barrel, net

Potential shelter and transportation for invasive species. Credit: Lindsey Hoshaw

And while natural modes of transportation – such as driftwood or even marine mammals like whales – also get unwanted species from point A to B, they tend to be less buoyant, less numerous and more constant in number throughout time than debris. Barnes also estimated that marine debris about doubles the opportunities for marine organisms to propagate at tropical latitudes and more than triples it at high latitudes.

Invasions of non-native species can be bad news for biodiversity – especially if the native species being pushed out are scarce in other parts of the world or are entirely unique to their ecosystems.  Since much of the marine debris doesn’t break down quickly, and we keep putting more garbage into the ocean, these numbers are just going to keep increasing – unless we change our behavior.

The long-distance transport of exotic and unwanted colonizers is yet another reason to keep the oceans free of garbage. When you’re at the beach or river, take away everything you came with to ensure that garbage doesn’t reach our waterways in the first place. There’s no knowing how far garbage will travel once it takes to the sea – or who’s hitching a ride.


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Miriam Goldstein Interview: Plastics Research Aboard NOAA’s Okeanos Explorer

Image of the sea surface at 23.19425o N, 154.58109o W taken from aboard NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer during the EX1006 exploration cruise from Pearl Harbor, HI to San Francisco, CA which transited through the N. Pacific Subtopical High (aka E. Pacific garbage patch). The image was taken the afternoon of October 20, 2010 while the ship was conducting manta net sampling operations at a speed of 2-3 knots. Plastic particles can be seen in the image. Explanation of photo contents (colored circles and labels) provided by Miriam Goldstein. Image courtesy of NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program

Miriam Goldstein of Scripps Institution of Oceanography recently sat down with the NOAA Marine Debris Program to talk about her October 2010 work aboard NOAA’s Okeanos Explorer during its EX1006 trans-Pacific cruise through what is commonly referred to as the “Eastern Garbage Patch” in the north Pacific ocean west of California.

About Miriam C. Goldstein:
Miriam C. Goldstein is a Ph.D. student in biological oceanography at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in Mark Ohman’s lab. She is currently working on the abundance and ecological effects of plastic debris in the North Pacific Central Gyre. In August 2009, she served as chief scientist on the Scripps Environmental Accumulation of Plastic Expedition (SEAPLEX), a 20-day expedition to study accumulation of plastic debris in the central Pacific. This Q&A took place following her work on the NOAA Okeanos Explorer’s cruise from Honolulu to San Francisco, which concluded in November 2010.

How did you become interested in this subject?
About 3 years ago, I started seeing headlines about the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch.” I became really intrigued and invited Marcus Eriksen of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation to speak at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, where I am a graduate student. I found Dr. Eriksen’s talk fascinating and realized that there was lots of scientific work to do on this topic. So I got together with several other Scripps graduate students and wrote a grant to the UC Ship Funds to take one of the Scripps research vessels out to the North Pacific to look for plastic.

Have there been other scientific studies conducted in this part of the ocean before on plastics? Who did this and when did they take place?
The Algalita Marine Research Foundation, founded by Charles Moore, has been going out there for about a decade. They are the ones who have really raised awareness of plastic in the open ocean. The Sea Education Association is an educational group that has been monitoring plastic in both the Atlantic and the Pacific from their tall ships for a number of years. They have a particularly nice dataset on plastic in the Atlantic, collected over 22 years and just recently published in Science. Project Kaisei is another nonprofit that went out to the North Pacific Central Gyre in 2009 (in collaboration with our group at Scripps) and again in 2010. Their mission is to find ways to clean up the plastic. This is definitely not a comprehensive list – thanks to the hard work of Charles Moore and his group in particular, there are now many conservation groups and scientists who are becoming interested in this issue.

What was unique or different about the October 2010 NOAA EX1006 trans-Pacific cruise from other(s) you’ve been on?
I had never been on a NOAA ship before, and I am embarrassed to say that I had no idea that NOAA had a uniformed officer corps. I enjoyed learning about the NOAA Commissioned Officer Corps and getting to know some of the officers and the paths their careers had taken. I had also never been on a bathymetric mapping ship before. It was incredibly cool to see how the mapping team used sonar to map the seafloor. They may have even discovered a new seamount or two!

What goes into deploying your equipment on a vessel as large as the Okeanos Explorer
Every deployment requires a lot of teamwork! The manta tow is deployed on a piece of equipment called the “J-frame,” which allows us to pull the net on the starboard (right) side of the ship. In order to do this the officer in charge needs to slow down the ship, a trained person needs to operate the J-frame, and two people need to attach the net to the J-frame wire and make sure it enters and leaves the water correctly. Each team constantly talks to each other over the radio to make sure that everyone is coordinated. It takes about a half-hour to do one manta tow.

How many samples were you able to collect?
We were able to do 40 manta tows. Some of the samples went to the NOAA Northwest Fisheries Science Center for chemical analysis, some went back to my lab at Scripps to count and measure the plastic, and a few stayed on the Okeanos Explorer for outreach and education.

What was the lab like aboard the Okeanos Explorer?
There are three labs on the Okeanos Explorer – the wet lab, the dry lab, and the control room. Since I was working with plankton and seawater, it probably isn’t much of a surprise that I spent most of my time in the wet lab. Every time we did a tow, I would wash all the plankton into the end of the net, which is a removable part called a “cod end.” I would then take the cod end into the wet lab and wash the plastic and plankton into a jar. I would then fill the jar with ethyl alcohol, which preserves the plankton so that I can look at it in the lab back at Scripps. Preservation is absolutely necessary because rotting plankton is VERY unpleasant!

What did you use to collect the samples? Why the manta net?
We collected two types of samples. We used the manta net to look at plastic on the ocean’s surface. The manta net captures what’s called the air-sea interface – the very top of the ocean. Past trips to the Gyre suggest that most of the plastic is floating up there. We also collected seawater in a bucket, then filtered it through very fine filters to see if we could find plastic particles that were too small to be captured by the manta net.

Were there specific collection protocols you followed for this cruise?
Definitely! It is very important to collect samples the exact same way every time. That way, when we see changes in the amount or type of plastic, we can be sure that it is because something is happening in the ocean and not because we collected the samples in a different way.

What types of plastic samples were collected?
I can’t answer this since we haven’t analyzed the samples yet.

Where can one find data from past samples collected in this area of the ocean?
An arbitrary and very incomplete list…

Gilfillan, L., M. Ohman, M. Doyle, and W. Watson. 2009. Occurrence of plastic micro-debris in the southern California Current system. CalCOFI Report 50. Retrieved from http://www.calcofi.org/publications/ccreports/251-vol50-2009.html.

Moore, C. J., S. L. Moore, M. K. Leecaster, and S. B. Weisberg. 2001. A comparison of plastic and plankton in the North Pacific central gyre. Marine Pollution Bulletin 42:1297-1300.

Pichel, W. G., J. H. Churnside, T. S. Veenstra, D. G. Foley, K. S. Friedman, R. E. Brainard, J. B. Nicoll, Q. Zheng, and P. Clemente-Colon. 2007. Marine debris collects within the North Pacific Subtropical Convergence Zone. Marine Pollution Bulletin 54:1207-1211.

Shaw, D. G., and R. H. Day. 1994. Colour- and form-dependent loss of plastic micro-debris from the North Pacific Ocean. Marine Pollution Bulletin 28:39-43.

Venrick, E. L., T. W. Backman, W. C. Bartram, C. J. Platt, M. S. Thornhill, and R. E. Yates. 1973. Man-made objects on the surface of the central North Pacific ocean. Nature 241:271-271.

Wong, C. S., D. R. Green, and W. J. Cretney. 1974. Quantitative tar and plastic waste distributions in Pacific Ocean. Nature 247:30-32.

What was the most difficult part of your work on this cruise?
Usually I get seasick for the first few days, and that’s never any fun. I was really lucky onboard the Okeanos Explorer – we had great weather, and for the first time ever, I didn’t feel sick at all! But the most difficult part was still anticipating that I would spend some time “feeding the fish.”

How will the samples be processed?
We will sort the plastic out under a dissecting microscope, then use a specialized scanner called Zooscan to count and measure each piece. I’m working with NOAA and with Sea Education Association to find the best way to monitor plastic pollution.

What do you hope to find out from these samples?
The cruise on board the Okeanos Explorer was a wonderful opportunity to look at plastic abundance in the fall. The North Pacific Central Gyre does undergo some seasonal changes, and we don’t have very much data from times other than the summer. So we’re really excited to see how the samples vary from season to season and year to year.

When do you think results might be available on your samples analysis? Do you plan to publish your results?
We will definitely do our best to get our findings out as fast as we can. The laboratory process does take time – collecting the samples is actually the easier part. We plan to publish in the scientific literature, as well as communicating our findings directly to the public through blogs like this one!

What would you say was the most surprising thing you discovered during your work on this vessel?
I was really surprised how much the amount of plastic we found seemed to change with the season. This may be because of the wind – there is less wind in the summer, so all the plastic is floating right on the surface. During the Okeanos Explorer cruise there was more wind, so the plastic may have been mixed deeper, in the first six feet of water or so. Changes like this are why monitoring plastic is so important – if we don’t understand where the plastic is, it’s really hard to understand what its impact on marine ecosystems might be.

To Learn More About Miriam and her work check out the SEAPLEX website and her blog.

To learn more about the plastics research from the NOAA EX1006 cruise check out the Okeanos Explorer blog.




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Visiting Scientist, Michael Ford, Oceanographer

With the cruises for 2010 over and the ship at dock, we turn to the laboratories for the other half of EX1006 , also known as the Trans-Pacific Plankton Survey.  Almost two weeks at sea (followed by three weeks at sea on EX1005) and a hard-working crew that was let loose on several crates of oceanographic equipment yields a good set of samples.  That said, we are always craving more samples and stations because as excitement for the project builds, questions come up and ideas start flying.  It’s why many of us love the work.  That same excitement will stoke the fires and keep us going over the next several months of careful laboratory work and data analysis.  We’ll try to provide updates along the way.

Here’s the rundown of the who, what, and why of the collections:

I.  Microplastic samples – particles greater than 1/3 of a millimeter

o    Gear: manta net

o    Stations: about four per day from Honolulu to San Francisco

o    Processing: counting and sizing particles, looking at zooplankton captured as well

o    Who: Miriam Goldstein at Scripps

o    Helps us understand…

  • what is out there and how much
  • one width of the Garbage Patch using first and last occurrence in the nets

II.  “Micro-micro” plastic samples – particles greater than 2/100 of a millimeter

o    Gear:  An ordinary bucket followed by filtering through 20-micron filters

o    Stations: as often as possible from Honolulu to San Francisco

o    Processing: spectroscopy and other techniques to get to particle counts and sizes

o    Who: Miriam Goldstein at Scripps (see her blog <link to Miriam’s blog> on this site)

o    Helps us understand…

  • more detail about what is out there
  • more about the possibility of ingestion by plankton

III.  Microplastic samples for chemistry – particles greater than 1/3 of a millimeter

o    Gear: manta net

o    Stations: one per day from Honolulu to San Francisco

o    Processing: various lab techniques – we’ll blog about this topic in more detail later

o    Who: NOAA National Marine Fisheries Service Laboratory in Seattle, WA

o    Helps us understand…

  • what types of toxins might be in or on the plastic particles
  • more about the potential impacts the plastic might have on the surrounding ecosystem

IV.  Zooplankton samples

o    Gear: Continuous Plankton Recorder

o    Stations: it ran almost continuously from Guam to Honolulu and Honolulu to San Francisco – that’s nearly 5100 nautical miles of towing.

o    Processing:  visual and microscopic examination of lengths of silk with embedded plankton

o    Who: NOAA National Marine Fisheries Service Laboratory in Narragansett, RI

o    Helps us understand…

  • the density and species diversity of the plankton population living near/in the Garbage Patch
  • the differences and similarities in zooplankton populations as you leave the coast and move to the open ocean
  • the differences and similarities between zooplankton to the west of Hawaii and to the east of Hawaii

Michael Ford, Oceanographer
Office of the Assistant Administrator for Fisheries
NOAA Fisheries Service