Ocean Trash Plaguing Our Sea

Garbage patches in the ocean aren't piled-up islands of trash and debris, as is the common perception. But that doesn't mean the tiny, swirling plastic bits are nothing to worry about.

The currents of the North Pacific gyre collect trash—mostly bits of microscopic plastic—into what are known as "garbage patches."

Credit: NOAA Marine Debris Program

In the Pacific Ocean, four ocean currents merge to form the North Pacific gyre, also known as the North Pacific Subtropical High, which spans the western US to Japan, and Hawaii to California. This enormous rotating vortex has collected floating garbage from across the Pacific, but much of the debris can typically be found in the calm center of this rotating area, often referred to as the "eastern Pacific garbage patch." Keep in mind, however, that this is no island or blanket of trash that can be seen with satellite or aerial photographs—most of the floating trash is tiny pieces of plastic, many of them so small as to be invisible to the human eye.

Its vast size and the small size of the trash left the garbage patch largely unnoticed until the early 1990s, when Captain Charles Moore, head of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, sailed through a rarely traveled area between Hawaii and the mainland. Over the course of a week, despite being hundreds of miles from land, Moore watched a continuous stream of plastic trash float by. Although fishermen and sailors have noted the debris in this area for years, it was Captain Moore who brought the area into the public sphere.

While the garbage patch has received a lot of attention because of its size, it is not the only area where marine debris can be found: marine debris affects waters and coastlines around the world. Animals frequently become entangled in large pieces of debris, and can be cut, drowned, or slowed down by dragging the extra weight. Additionally, heavy gear, such as fishing nets, can damage reefs and other important habitats.


New England Aquarium/K. Mahoney

Because of its durability, low cost, and our increased use in recent decades, plastic makes up the majority of marine debris seen on shorelines and floating in oceans worldwide. This creates a difficult problem because most plastics are not biodegradable (bacteria don't break them down into simple, harmless components the way they do paper or wood). Instead, as plastic ages, the sun's light and heat break it into smaller and smaller pieces.

This tiny plastic confetti, along with larger pieces of floating plastic, creates a big problem. Birds, like the laysan albatross (Phoebastria immutabilis), and filter feeders that strain food out of the water may mistake plastic for plankton, fish eggs, or other food. On remote Midway Atoll, albatross chicks die of starvation and dehydration because their parents have unwittingly fed them bottle caps and cigarette lighters, which they can't digest. Even in the protected waters surrounding the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, at the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, our trash threatens endangered species like Hawaiian monk seals and green sea turtles.

Scientists with agencies such as NOAA, and other institutions around the world, continue to research the impacts of marine debris, including the emerging area of microplastic debris (plastic that is less than 5mm) and its impacts on our marine ecosystems.

Endangered species, Human impacts, Pacific islands

Related Video

Diver Encounters a Floating Garbage Patch

The Smithsonian Institution's Dive Officer documents a "swirling monster" of plastic trash...

Photo Gallery

Laysan Albatrosses’ Plastic Problem

Plastic pollution in the ocean is a serious problem. Our flotsam can choke, entangle, or kill marine life and is dangerous to humans as well.

Credit: Onno Groß, DEEPWAVE

More Information

NOAA Marine Debris ProgramAlgalita Marine Research Foundation Blog: Plastic Trash Plagues the OceanBlog: Teaching Your Students About Marine DebrisOcean Conservancy Report on Marine Debris: Trash Travels

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Submitted by Lulu (not verified) on

you guys should stop throwing trash into the ocean its not right were hurting animals and our ocean is getting dirty dont be lazy help out and clean outside sometime it wouldnt hurt you to help out for once

Submitted by Jacky (not verified) on

The ocean is to pretty to get disgusting trash on it
Get up and stop eating food to make a difference

Submitted by David J. (not verified) on

I'm a little concernicous about the title of the article; it kind of makes it seem like trash from the Ocean is polluting our seas. But it's actually trash from Humans polluting our Oceans.

Submitted by omg (not verified) on


Submitted by Nathan (not verified) on

I see the trolls are filled with ignorance as they glaze over articles such as this one here.
Do your research before spewing nonsense.

Submitted by candy (not verified) on

I feel soooo bad for that bird filled with trash in the photo gallery, people should soooo not put trash in the ocean, I immediately pick up trash I see in oceans

Submitted by nadine (not verified) on

Instead of researching the impact of the trash, wouldnt the money be best spent on cleaning it up? It is floating so skimming the top of the water should be able to clean alot of it up

Submitted by Cyndi (not verified) on

Is there any programs or anything that people are doing to get all the trash out of our oceans? Where can we find some information if there is something being done?

Submitted by concerned students in Laredo, Texas (not verified) on

People have to stop throwing trash into our bodies of water. We need to do something to promote recycling and make it mandatory for everyone. We are doing research papers regarding Plastic Island and we are worried about the harm we are doing to our marine life and other animals. We are in the process of getting a presentation regarding this problems next week. Everyone should research on Bag It the movie to learn more.

Submitted by Carol Forsberg (not verified) on

Why are Governments around the world not doing more to bring this to the attention of their people? Is it because of the big corporations who sell us their packaged junk (which incidentally also pollutes us!) are so powerful that they are too intimidated to question why they use this sort of packaging? We need to take personal responsibility for the products we buy and refuse to buy anything that is packaged in this way - if we are forced to buy these products, then we need to take responsibility for seeing that they are sent to a recycling depot - not just throw them down or into the normal rubbish.

Submitted by sol burruezo (not verified) on

plastic bag takes more than 1,000 years to disintegrate and never completely disappeara......

Submitted by yii (not verified) on

yes it is

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on

this is horrible

Submitted by nick linnear (not verified) on

Sign the petitions online at Change.org, Credo, Sierra club, etc.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on

very good

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on

This is horrible!!!!!!!
Hopefully people understand this is a big problem

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on

This is so sad, I'm doing a project in school about pollution and my group is centering around plastic pollution in the oceans, we're looking for coorporations to make donations to with the money we raise, now I'm looking for information for a report.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on

What is the name of the author of this article?

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on

this is crazy

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on

people need to stop this and think about the animals that are dieing and about the dinking water