Scientists have confirmed a massive patch of floating plastic in the South Pacific that they say is 1 million square miles (2.58 million square kilometers), or 1.5 times the size of Texas. While that might seem huge (and it is), this newly discovered patch is dwarfed by the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which, according to some estimates, is twice the size of the United States.
Both patches are held in place by swirling underwater currents called gyres. In the case of the newly discovered debris field, tiny plastic pieces swirl in the South Pacific Gyre, about 3,800 miles (6,115 kilometers) west of South America. American oceanographer Charles Moore, founder of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, confirmed the field during a six-month expedition to study plastic pollution in the South Pacific. Moore and his crew made stops in The Galapagos Islands, Easter Island, Chile and more. Moore also discovered the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in the North Pacific while racing a yacht in the 1990s.
While the idea of a swirling plastic debris field might conjure up images of floating bottles, bags and other litter, in reality it's a morass of microscopic beads and plastic fibers that have found their way into the ocean due to human activity, including showering, fishing and laundering. Although some of the plastic is large enough to be seen with the naked eye, including bits of fishing gear, wave and wind action allows the plastic to move across a wide area on the ocean surface and throughout the top portion of the water column. Boats can sail through the gyres without people ever seeing the debris.
Since plastic takes more than 400 years to degrade, it doesn't easily return, like cotton or paper, into its original chemical state, which the environment can then absorb and use to fuel the processes of life. Instead, plastic lingers and pollutes, in this case, the oceans.
The emergence of a second plastic field in the Pacific is bad news for aquatic creatures and humans. Many ocean organisms depend on plankton to survive. But instead of ingesting these tiny creatures, many chow down on the plastic, which soaks up chemical pollutants from the ocean. As these pollutants move through the food chain they can cause a variety of human diseases, such as cancer.
During the expedition, Moore's crew discovered an albacore tuna with plastic in its stomach. Moore also investigated how plastic is affecting the lanternfish, which is important to the diet of whales, king penguins and squid. A 2010 study found that 35 percent of lanternfish in the North Pacific Gyre had consumed plastic, some in large quantities. The health of the ocean depends on the survival of the lanternfish; losing them could have a domino effect that could lead to ecological collapse, the study said.
Although Moore hasn't determined the ratio of plankton to trash in the newly discovered gyre, he surmises it is about 10 years behind the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Once the plastic particles are in the gyre, they are nearly impossible to clean up.