The Great (Enormous) Pacific Garbage Patch

Artists for A Pristine PlanetImagine taking your children or grandchildren to the beach: sandy white shores, pristine water, marine wildlife creating a serene picture, maybe a dolphin or two putting on a show to make the kiddies giggle. (Photo: Kalk Bay, Cape Town, SA;  Cheryl-Anne Roelofsz)

Sadly, that picture is slowly fading.

Instead of sandy white beaches and clear blue waters, we have debris covering thousands of kilometres of beach front.

We have animals entangled in and ingesting plastic litter: turtles mistake plastic bags for jelly fish, albatross mistake red and brown bits of plastic for shrimp – and those cute dolphins? They get caught in discarded fishing nets and lines and either die by strangulation or starvation.

Entangled seal by derelict net, Hawaii. Photo Source: NOAA

You might just (mistakenly) assume that this only happens on land areas and off the immediate coast – surely out in the middle of the ocean the situation would be much better?

Not so.

Here’s why: Gyres. A gyre is a large scale circular feature made up of ocean currents created by a system of high pressure air currents that spiral around a central point. They make up 40 percent of our oceans. They are also accumulators of garbage….

Artists for A Pristine PlanetNorth Pacific Gyre. Illustration: NOAA

The biggest (known) vortex of debris can be found in the Central North Pacific Ocean, spanning approximately 7 to 9 million square miles…”combined” garbage, floating in patches of roughly 1700 miles across.

Three times bigger than the USA (3 million square miles!), the Pacific gyre contains two accumalations of garbage in the western and eastern regions, collectively known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The Eastern Pacific Garbage Patch floats between Japan and Hawaii; the Western Patch floats between Hawaii and California.

An even bigger garbage patch is said to be found in the Southern Hemisphere, where expeditions are currently underway to study and search this area. Experts are frightened about what they will find. This southern patch is estimated to be four times larger than the Pacific Patch.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is characterized by high concentrations of suspended plastic debris; think of a “soupy mix of plastic filled seawater,” as one reporter put it.

Artists for A Pristine PlanetGreat Garbage patch, floating debris. Photo Source: flyaddicts

When animals ingest plastic, it gets lodged in their windpipes and they suffocate.

Or it gets into the animal’s stomach, and it will be unable to eat and will starve to death.

A dead whale washed up on the shores of France in 2002, and upon investigation 800 kgs of plastic was found in its stomach.

The plastic tides and garbage patches also modify ecosystems. Marine Biologist David Barnes was quoted in a report, saying: “It can actually change entire ecosystems. Plastic debris which floats on the ocean surface acts as rafts for small sea creatures to grow and travel on. This represents a potential threat for the marine environment should an alien species become established. It is postulated that the slow speed at which plastic debris crosses oceans makes it an ideal vehicle for this. The organisms have plenty of time to adapt to different water and climatic conditions.”

Artists for A Pristine PlanetPlastic Sea. Photo Source: Coastal wiki

The different types of garbage found in the ocean may vary, ranging from plastic bottles, nappies and cigarette butts to fishing line, nets and cans. They all share a common origin. Humans. Its time we wake up and do something about it…now.

Sources: and, as well as articles published by Claire Le Guern Lytle and David Barnes. Thanks to Cheryl for her help.


Did you know that 85 MILLION plastic drinking water bottles are being thrown out every day? I’m MAD about our oceans getting all mucked up! So – I’m painting 100 paintings in 100 days to raise awareness. I invite you to join me on my Facebook Fan Page Artists for A Pristine Planet, and do us all a favor – hit the ‘Like’ button! I’d love it if you would ask your friends to go there and ‘Like’ it too – thanks!

© Angela Treat Lyon 2010


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