Could we clean up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch?

Lots of human refuse ends up in the ocean. See more pictures of ocean conservation.
Photo courtesy NOAA 200 Years

About a thousand miles off the coast of California floats one of mankind's dirtiest little secrets. Or at least it was a secret before the late '90s, when a seafaring scientist stumbled upon it in horror. It's a floating dump in the ocean, big enough to hold one or two Texases or maybe all of North America, depending on who you ask [sources: Stone, Silverman, SSF].

The discrepancy in size estimates may be due to the fact that since most of the trash is below the surface, the borders are almost impossible to see from above the water. Plus, the trash moves around with the currents, and there's more than one of these patches. At least one more lies in the Pacific, and they dot the entire globe. Most often, "Great Pacific Garbage Patch" refers to the one extending from Hawaii to San Francisco. That patch of trash is supposed to be the biggest, sporting an impressive 3.5 million tons (3.1 million metric tons) of watery garbage [source: SSF]. And at least 80 percent of it is plastic [source: Berton].

For decades, we've been told plastic doesn't degrade -- that it sits in landfills forever and ever and therefore it is very, very bad. (Unless you're going to Mexico and need to provide your own water so you don't get the runs -- then, it's also pretty handy. But still, very, very bad.) The truth is, plastic does degrade. It just doesn't biodegrade.

Plastic will photodegrade, a process by which it ultimately ends up breaking into countless tiny bits of the same substance. In a landfill, this may not make a huge difference. But when that plastic is seaborne, it makes all the difference in the world. And there's the rub: An ever-increasing amount of the world's ever-increasing amount of plastic refuse is ending up in the ocean.

In fact, the Pacific Ocean now hosts the largest trash dump on Earth. It's called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and it's not a pretty picture. Waste dumped both on land and at sea has made its way into a swirling vortex of oceanic trash that threatens sea life, aquatic ecosystems, fishing industries and the safety of the human seafood supply. In some coastal areas, a day at the beach is becoming a day at the sandy trash heap.

In this article, we'll see what's being done about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. We'll find out who wants to clean it up and what methods they propose to get the Herculean task done. We'll also see why that cleanup effort might be doomed from the start.

But then, there's certainly nothing wrong with a little optimism.


Garbage Patch Cleanup, Ideally

Unlike this beached plastic, the tiny particles that make up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch aren't within easy reach.
Unlike this beached plastic, the tiny particles that make up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch aren't within easy reach.
Photo courtesy

The floating dump that lies about 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) north of the Hawaiian islands has pretty much just sat there, getting bigger since ocean researcher Captain Charles Moore stumbled on it in 1997 [source: Stone]. (That's actually not that bad considering how much we haven't done about global warming in the 30 or 40 years that issue's been on the books.) In the last few years, though, several organizations have stepped up their focus on the Garbage Patch and what to do about it.

The first group to pay close attention to the mass of trash accumulated by a vortex of swirling ocean currents -- or gyre -- was formed by Charles Moore himself. Shocked by his discovery, he started the Algalita Foundation in 1999 with the primary purpose of studying the garbage patch. Algalita researchers take samples from the patch by dragging a net through it. They analyze each sample for plastic content in the water and plastic toxicity in the fish they catch. In one catch, they found 84 pieces of plastic in the gut of a rainbow runner [source: Hoshaw]. In all, their research shows the plastic content of the ocean is increasing steadily [source: Hoshaw].

While shedding light on the problem certainly opens the door to solving it, the Algalita Foundation isn't taking steps toward a cleanup. In that area, a group from the Ocean Voyages Institute called Project Kaisei has taken the lead, proposing a rather innovative cleanup solution.

The plan is pretty simple on its face -- dredge the plastic out of the water using nets and turn it over to recycling companies. Seems easy enough. The next potential step is rather ambitious: turn the trash into fuel. Using a process called pyrolysis, the plastic would be heated in a vacuum to a temperature above 550 degrees F (260 degrees C), at which point it would start to break down into its components [source: Stone]. Those components could then be processed into oil.

The biggest draw of the plan is its double-solution mentality: We have too much trash, not enough fuel and a feasible way to kill both birds.

The biggest problem with the plan is that most experts believe it's impossible.

Garbage Patch Cleanup, Realistically

The best way to stem the growth of the patch is to use less plastic and recycle it more often.
The best way to stem the growth of the patch is to use less plastic and recycle it more often.
Photo courtesy

While cleaning up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch would undoubtedly do wonders for the health of the oceans and their inhabitants, fisheries, ecosystems and food supplies, the logistics of such an undertaking would strain the resolve of the most aquatic-minded individual. Captain Charles Moore, of all people, thinks such an effort would be futile [source: Stone].

It's not that Project Kaisei's plan is particularly far-fetched -- it has its upsides and its downsides. On the one hand, it would dispose of the trash in a way that doesn't include a landfill; on the other, catching the plastic in nets would also catch and possibly harm marine life.

But these are small points. The fact is, many (if not most) experts believe the notion of any active cleanup of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is bordering on preposterous.

The difficulty comes down to at least three main factors: cost, distance and the effects of photodegradation.

Photodegradation describes the effects of sunlight on the tons of plastic floating out at sea. Essentially, the sun's rays dry the plastic to the point that it shatters. The result is countless miniscule bits of plastic, most of which are floating below the surface, reaching down perhaps 300 feet (91 meters) [source: Berton]. There is simply no good way to pull those tiny beads out of the water. It would be kind of like trying to catch sand in a Jacuzzi tub.

An even weightier task if that Jacuzzi tub were out in the middle of the ocean where it took a week to even reach it in the first place. The garbage patch is really out there - that's why it remained a secret so long. Getting to it is a hike. It's not close to any port or any source of supplies. That makes a massive cleanup effort an extraordinarily time-consuming, fuel-consuming, resource-consuming undertaking.

In other words, it would be prohibitively expensive. Add in the $7-million-per-pyrolysis setup involved in Project Kaisei's approach, and you've got yourself a bankruptcy in the making [source: Stone].

If a full-scale, active cleanup is an unlikely end to the ocean dump, there are still other ways to at least begin to change to status quo. Job one is to stop the rapid growth of the patch, which means using less plastic and recycling more of the plastic we do use. Ultimately, though, the planet will have to make a deeper change in order to stem the flow of bottles, toothbrushes and bath beads out to sea. We'll have to move away from petroleum-based plastics and toward biodegradable substitutes in a much bigger way than we are now. Eco-plastic coffee cups aren't going to make a dent in the floating trash heap.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links


  • Berton, Justin. "Feds want to survey possibly clean up vast garbage pit in Pacific." The San Francisco Chronicle. Oct. 30, 2007.
  • Garbage Patch. Sea Studies Foundation.
  • Erdman, Shelby Lin. "Scientists study 'garbage patch' in Pacific Ocean." CNN. Aug. 4, 2009.
  • Hoshaw, Lindsey. "Afloat in the Ocean, Expanding Islands of Trash." The New York Times. Nov. 9, 2009.
  • Rindels, Michelle. "Great Pacific Garbage Patch Swells." Discovery News. Aug. 28, 2009.
  • Silverman, Jacob. "Why is the world's biggest landfill in the Pacific Ocean?" HowStuffWorks.
  • Stone, Daniel. "The Great Pacific Cleanup." Newsweek.