There's a Trash Pile in the Ocean Bigger Than Texas — Here's What You Need to Know

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Christine Figgener, a Ph.D. student at Texas A&M University, uploaded in August a video of a sea turtle to YouTube. The eight-minute clip showed the animal, a greenish-gray member of the bountiful olive ridley species, with a plastic straw stuck in its nose. The turtle's distress was immediately apparent as Figgener and her fellow researchers tried gently and methodically to coax the straw out of the turtle's nose with pliers. By the time they managed to dislodge it, there was blood from the turtle's beak smeared against the bright white of the team's boat.

Nathan Robinson, who helped with the extraction, told the Washington Post he was in "absolute shock at what we've seen." He wasn't alone. The video immediately went viral, racking up 2 million views in a week. (It currently has over 6 million.) It dotted Facebook feeds everywhere and prompted outraged calls to action. 

While the video certainly draws attention to the human destruction waged on marine animals, it was but one example plucked from a seemingly endless pool. Millions of sea creatures — never mind those that live on land — are continually threatened by the trash and pollution dumped into the world's seas. 

And nowhere is this more apparent than the aptly named Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

Source: STR/Getty Images

What exactly is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch? Given its somewhat fantastical premise — a giant expanse of garbage floating in the middle of the Pacific Ocean — the Great Pacific Garbage Patch has taken on near-mythical qualities. It's been called "garbage island" and is said to be twice the size of Texas — some 536,000 square miles.

These are eye-popping claims, but they're also somewhat misleading. The area of pollution isn't a solid plastic "trashberg" floating across the Pacific. It is massive, but it's difficult to see from above or with the naked eye, primarily because of the nature of plastic, which breaks down into smaller and smaller parts rather than fully disintegrating.

A sample from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch  Flickr/Algalita Marine Research and Education

"We always say to people, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is not an island," Liesl Thomas, the executive director of Algalita, a nonprofit focused on plastic-driven marine pollution, told Mic. She likened the area to "plastic soup."

"It's like plastic soup."

But, Thomas said, the Algalita team — which has been conducting regular research in the area since 1999 — does sometimes find solid waste. Toothbrushes, bottle caps and fishing nets are the most but "You start naming a lot of the plastic in your trash, and we've probably found it out there." 

Where is the patch and why is it there? As National Geographic explains, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is actually formed by two bookending areas: The Eastern Garbage Patch, which is found between Hawaii and California, and the Western Garbage Patch, which lies off the coast of Japan. It 

The garbage accumulates in these regions due to the existence of gyres, spinning ocean currents. These currents whip up whatever trash is in the area — and there's a lot — and concentrates it into one sprawling vortex of waste.

Source: YouTube

Worryingly, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch isn't the only oceanic trash wasteland out there. Because there are five major gyres — North Pacific, South Pacific, North Atlantic, South Atlantic and Indian — there are five corresponding garbage patches. (The "Great Pacific Garbage Patch" refers the North Pacific Garbage Patch because it has been studied the most and is thought to have the highest concentration of trash.)

But we could soon know more about the others. In November, a new mission called Kon-Tiki II will depart from Peru and set sail for Easter Island. While the journey has myriad purposes, including historical exploration and educational opportunity, one of its primary goals is to probe the South Pacific Garbage Patch, which, unlike its cousin to the North, remains relatively uncharted. 

"During the trip we will be taking samples, measuring plastic concentration level in around the pacific garbage patch using sonar as well as collection, which will help in determining how this is currently affecting the ocean," Håkon Wium Lie, the CTO of Opera, a software company sponsoring the voyage, told the Christian Science Monitor

Torgeir Sæverud Higraff, the journey's expedition leader, added that the goal is discovery. "The cleanup of the Pacific is impossible without more data about how much microplastic and what type of microplastic is floating around there ...  We do a great effort to make these numbers available to the public so that correct action can take place."

Debris from the South Pacific Garbage Patch  Algalita Marine Research and Education

Where does the trash come from? According to a paper published in the journal Science in February, humans were responsible for dropping between 4.8 and 12.7 million metric tons of plastic in the ocean in 2010 alone. Lead author Jenna Jambeck noted that the 8 million metric ton midpoint "is the equivalent to finding five grocery bags full of plastic on every foot of coastline in the 192 countries we examined."

As the New York Times reported upon the paper's publication, Jambeck and her co-authors included a list of the world's worst polluters: China came in first, while the United States came in last. This had less to do with the amount of trash per person — China clocked in at 1.10 kilograms per person per day, the U.S. at 2.6 kilograms — but rather the effectiveness of each country's waste management systems.

Source: YouTube

As Thomas said, it's not just you and I who are slowly killing the turtles and dolphins. Corporate entities — the companies that actually produce the plastic products for a single-use basis — are also to blame. But at the end of the day, it all has the same effect: Polluting our oceans, animals, and, eventually, our own bodies.

"It's just this constant cycle," Thomas told Mic. "If we were all to be truly studied, and have every test done, we'd probably be all alarmed at the amount of plastic that's already in us."

"We'd probably be all alarmed at the amount of plastic that's already in us."

Like other forms of large-scale environmental destruction, it can be difficult to envision just how bad the garbage patches are. They also have an added geographical challenge of residing in the middle of nowhere. Couple this with the tiny nature of the trash, and you have a recipe for inaction.

According to Thomas, jockeying people into feeling rather than thinking can be quite effective. The turtle video, for example, is an easy and visceral way to induce a pathological response. Images of stranded polar bears on melting ice caps or forlorn panda bears work the same way: When people can see the effects on an individual creature or person, the massive scope of the problem becomes easier to consider. 

But that shouldn't nullify the devastation caused by things like plastic pollution.

"For lack of a better term, [species] are being murdered by these items. They're not someone's food at that point. They're just being killed for no reason," Thomas told Mic. In the case of the sea turtle, she said she couldn't bring herself to finish watching the video, despite her job. 

Trash from the North Atlantic Gyre  Algalita Marine Research and Education

What can be done? The complexity of the problem — the sheer amount of trash, the number of countries involved, the amount of money required, the potential ecological consequences — is, in a sense, terrifying. 

"If we don't stop polluting our oceans, I don't know how we think we're going to survive," Thomas said.

Prevention is an important step. The reduction in the quantity of plastic consumed, for example, and a reconsideration of the single-use philosophy many people have adopted when it comes to their cups, bottles and bags. Clean up, too, should be part of the discussion — and it frequently receives media attention — but without preventative efforts, it's all but a game of catch-up. 

"I think for a lot of people, they don't understand how much the ocean health affects land," Thomas told Mic. "Because it's out of sight, out of mind. But it really, really does. It drastically affects everything else, and it's going to continue to do so if we don't do something about it."