A new study – based on what researchers called a mega-expedition to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in 2015 – suggests there is about 16 times more waste than previously thought floating there. The mass of waste spans 617,763 square miles (1.6 million square km), about three times the size of France. The new research was published March 22, 2018 in Nature’s peer-reviewed journal Scientific Reports. It was made possible in part by a 2014 crowd-funding campaign, organized by The Ocean Cleanup.
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is located about halfway between Hawaii and California. It’s the largest accumulation zone for ocean plastics on Earth. The new analysis is the result of a three-year mapping survey by an international team of scientists. It suggests that some 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic weighing nearly 90,000 tons (80,000 metric tons) are currently floating in this area. And, according to The Ocean Cleanup:
… it’s rapidly getting worse.
In order to analyze the full extent of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the team conducted a comprehensive sampling effort of the area. They say it is the most comprehensive sampling to date. The research team crossed the area of debris with 30 vessels simultaneously, with most vessels equipped with standard surface sampling nets. The data they gathered were supplemented by two aircraft surveys.
The fleet collected a total of 1.2 million plastic samples, while the aerial sensors scanned more than 116 square miles (300 square km) of ocean surface.
The researchers found that 92 percent of the mass was represented by larger objects, while only 8 percent of the mass is contained in microplastics (defined as pieces smaller than 5 mm [.2 inches] in size). Marine scientist Julia Reisser served as chief scientist of the expeditions. She said in a statement:
We were surprised by the amount of large plastic objects we encountered. We used to think most of the debris consists of small fragments, but this new analysis shines a new light on the scope of the debris.
By comparing the amount of microplastics found during their study with historical measurements, the team found that plastic pollution levels in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch have been growing exponentially since measurements began in the 1970s.
This plastic accumulation rate inside the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which was greater than in the surrounding waters, indicates that the inflow of plastic into the patch continues to exceed the outflow.
Meanwhile, the annual global consumption of plastic currently totals more than 320 million tons, and is on the rise, according to the report.
The Ocean Cleanup is a non-profit organization based in Delft, Netherlands. The group – which consists of more than 70 engineers, researchers, scientists and computer modelers – says its goal is to develop advanced technologies to help eliminate plastics in the world’s oceans. Boyan Slat is founder of The Ocean Cleanup and co-author of the new study. He elaborated on the relevance of the findings for his organization’s cleanup plans:
To be able to solve a problem, we believe it is essential to first understand it. These results provide us with key data to develop and test our cleanup technology, but it also underlines the urgency of dealing with the plastic pollution problem. Since the results indicate that the amount of hazardous microplastics is set to increase more than tenfold if left to fragment, the time to start is now.
Bottom line: According to a new study, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch contains 16 times more plastic than previously estimated.
Eleanor Imster has helped write and edit EarthSky since 1995. She was an integral part of the award-winning EarthSky radio series almost since it began until it ended in 2013. Today, as Lead Editor at EarthSky.org, she helps present the science and nature stories and photos you enjoy. She also serves as one of the voices of EarthSky on social media platforms including Facebook, Twitter and G+. She and her husband live in Tennessee and have two grown sons.