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The great Pacific garbage patch

The great Pacific garbage patch


The world’s largest mass of plastic marine litter has become a new home for thousands of creatures who haven’t been able to survive in the middle of the Pacific ocean before. What does this new ecosystem show about the extent of human plastic pollution?

[Wave SFX] 

In the middle of the North Pacific Ocean, in the expanse between California and Hawaii, there’s nothing but water for thousands of miles. 

[Wave SFX] 

But it’s in this remote stretch of ocean that you can find the world’s largest collection of marine plastic. It’s an area of rubbish which stretches over 620,000 square miles – that’s nearly 6 times bigger than the UK. It’s known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. 

It’s not a solid island of rubbish floating on top of the water. Instead, it’s more like a cloudy white plastic soup sitting a few metres beneath the water’s surface. Kevin O’Brien oversees marine debris removal on Hawaii: 

“When I went through it on my own sailboat I saw lots of things floating in the water a large derelict fishing net a ghost net or I might see a bottle or a crate // even if the debris isn’t a floating mat of trash even if it’s more dispersed than that it still hold an enormous amount of plastic.”

Kevin O’Brien

The water has turned murky due to a high concentration of tiny shards of plastic, with larger objects like plastic bottles, tyres, food wrappers, bags, nets, and even children’s toys bobbing around in the mix.

Plastic like this doesn’t sink or dissolve, and it’s designed to be durable so it can float in the oceans for decades. This particular patch of plastic has been there for so long that something remarkable has happened: 

“Scientists have been finding dozens of coastal creatures, including tiny crabs, have been able to survive and reproduce on plastic debris thousands of kilometres from their homes.”


Creatures like oysters, crabs, crustaceans and mussels are normally only found along coastlines, but they’ve adapted to life on the Garbage Patch and are now thriving on discarded plastic bags and empty milk cartons. 

As part of a new study published in the Nature Ecology & Evolution journal, a team of researchers combed through the debris by hand. They were shocked to discover it’s become  a brand new ecosystem: coastal animals are now living side-by-side with open-water sea creatures like jellyfish and barnacles. Joost Duboise was involved in the study, he says this inter-habitat mixing is not good news: 

“Is it’s an invasive species of course // it’s remarkable how many we found and the fact that they are able to reproduce is a warning sign”

Joost Duboise

The unprecedented levels of man made plastic pollution have created this new habitat. But how did the plastic end up in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch?


Most of the plastic pollution in the ocean starts out on land. 

“Plastic ends up in the ocean from land through a few different  ways but one of the most common ways is transport  through river systems so from city streets or something it’ll end up in a canal system or in  just a river system and then sort of flow out  with the river flow into the ocean and  from there be taken by different currents and end up where these currents converge in the open ocean.”


The plastic there becomes trapped by spinning circular currents, called gyres. There are actually five large plastic patches across the globe, but the one off the coast of California is the biggest. 

That’s because roughly 20% of the debris is thought to have been swept out into the Pacific by the tsunami which struck the coast of Japan in 2011.

So what can be done about all this plastic becoming trapped in the ocean? 


Scientists say there has been a “rapid and unprecedented” increase in marine plastic pollution since 2005. They predict that there’ll be more plastic in the sea than fish by 2050. But once plastic has made its way into the ocean, it’s hard to take it out… 

 “You know the plastics spread out,  it’s under the surface, it’s not an easy thing to mop up. If it were a garbage island I think it probably would be much easier to clean up.”

Kevin O’Brien

Over time the majority of plastic objects are broken down into tiny pieces of microplastic which cannot be filtered out. Here’s Kevin O’Brien again…

“Plastics that are in the ocean are exposed to a lot of different factors they’re exposed to ultraviolet radiation from the Sun they’re exposed to wave action they’re exposed to reefs and rocks sand and so there are a lot of things that are contributing to these plastics breaking down into smaller pieces.”

Kevin O’Brien

Preventing plastic ending up in the ocean in the first place is the only solution. 

Last year the UN Environment Assembly passed a resolution to end plastic pollution and create the world’s first global plastic pollution treaty, but the results remain to be seen. 

As more and more plastic is discarded into the ocean, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch will only continue to grow.

This episode was written and mixed by Rebecca Moore.