Actual Size of Great Pacific Garbage Patch Shocks Scientists

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A three-week voyage took researchers from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California 1,000 miles off the California Coast to study what is known as the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch.”

The team discovered that the amount of garbage is on a much greater scale than expected.

The Scripps Environmental Accumulation of Plastics Expedition, or SEAPLEX, set out to study toxicity, feeding patterns, invasive species and hard surfaces in the North Pacific Gyre, a circling ocean current. The research was written, designed and executed by graduate students hoping to add to the relatively small amount of information on the garbage patch.

The group of scientists set sail on the "R/V New Horizon" to study the North Pacific Gyre. Photo: Seaplexscience.com

The group of scientists set sail on the "R/V New Horizon" to study the North Pacific Gyre. Photo: Seaplexscience.com

“We wanted to further the scientific effort and set the stage for future research,” said Chief Scientist Miriam Goldstein. “We wanted to figure out the worst case scenario of the amount of plastic out there.”

While some previous data proved that the amount of garbage was increasing, the goal of SEAPLEX was to begin to understand its extent.

Some of their findings included barnacles attached to plastic bottles, large boxes and containers as well as a stuffed dog the team nicknamed “Lucky.”

Goldstein said the garbage patch is not a giant, floating island of trash, as many people imagine, but rather 80 percent of the trash particles are smaller than the average pinky nail. Of 132 net tows recorded by the team, 100 consecutive tows had plastic in them.

Scientists recently discovered that, contrary to previous belief, plastics break down quickly and in low temperatures in the ocean.

Goldstein explained that the amount of garbage could potentially change the ecosystem and alter the way many species move in the ocean.

“It’s pretty shocking to hear there’s all this debris not far away from land,” Goldstein told the San Diego News Network.

For now, scientists will continue to study the samples collected and make plans to go research the other gyres in the ocean, according to The Associated Press.

Taking into account the amount of plastic collecting in ocean gyre’s, it is important to recycle what you can. According to the American Chemistry Council’s “Too Valuable To Waste” Web site, “While litter doesn’t belong swimming in the sea, it also doesn’t always belong in the trash bin. Plastic bottles and other plastic containers are among the most easily recyclable materials, and can go on to live a very useful second life as decking, carpet, or polar fleece, just to name a few.”

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