Great Pacific Garbage Patch

The name “Pacific Garbage Patch” has led many to believe that this area is a large and continuous patch of easily visible marine debris items such as bottles and other litter —akin to a literal island of trash that should be visible with satellite or aerial photographs. While higher concentrations of litter items can be found in this area, along with other debris such as derelict fishing nets, much of the debris is actually small pieces of floating plastic that are not immediately evident to the naked eye.

The debris is continuously mixed by wind and wave action and widely dispersed both over huge surface areas and throughout the top portion of the water column. It is possible to sail through the “garbage patch” area and see very little or no debris on the water’s surface. It is also difficult to estimate the size of these “patches,” because the borders and content constantly change with ocean currents and winds. Regardless of the exact size, mass, and location of the “garbage patch,” manmade debris does not belong in our oceans and waterways and must be addressed.

Listen to National Ocean Service's Making Waves podcast on Garbage Patches
In this episode, Dianna Parker from the NOAA Marine Debris Program explains what a garbage patch is and isn't, what we know and don't know, and what we can do about this ocean-sized problem.

Oversimplified graphic of "garbage patches" in the North Pacific Ocean