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The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, full of ocean plastic, keeps growing

It's an 80,000-ton beast of debris between Hawaii and California that's still getting bigger.
by Kiara Alfonseca /

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There's an 80,000-ton monster lurking in the Pacific Ocean between Hawaii and California and it's still getting bigger.

Arguably more frightening than any shark, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a rapidly growing hot spot for ocean plastic, carrying 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic in what is now the largest accumulation of ocean debris in the world, according to a new report Thursday in Scientific Reports.

The patch is now two times larger than the size of Texas, with bits of plastic and debris spread over more than 600,000 square miles of water, according to the three-year mapping effort from eight different organizations.

Meanwhile, the annual consumption of plastic is on the rise around the world and currently totals more than 320 million tons, according to the report.

Image: Mega Expedition mothership R/V Ocean Starr crew pull a ghost net from the Pacific Ocean
Mega Expedition mothership R/V Ocean Starr crew pull a ghost net from the Pacific Ocean in 2015. The vast dump of plastic waste swirling in the Pacific ocean is now bigger than France, Germany and Spain combined -- far larger than previously feared -- and is growing rapidly, a study published on March 22, 2018 warned.Ocean Cleanup / AFP - Getty Images file

"To solve a problem, we need to understand it first," said Boyan Slat, CEO and founder of The Ocean Cleanup, the non-profit organization that led the research initiative. "There's a good part to it and a bad part to it. The bad part is that there is more [trash and plastic] than what we thought. But the good part is that most of the plastic is still large object. Just 8 percent of the plastic is microplastic. It's not too late to do something about it."

Nick Mallos, however, isn't surprised by the numbers in the report. Instead, as the director of the Ocean Conservancy's Trash Free Seas Program, he sees this as an opportunity for action.

The most effective way to stop the flow of plastic into waterways, he said, is to monitor our consumption and disposal of plastic and debris.

"We have a role to think about how we are consuming and how we are living our daily lives," Mallos said. "At the end of the day, ocean plastic isn't an ocean problem, but a people problem. [The Great Pacific Garbage Patch] can seem so far away and foreign to you, but the ocean is always downstream. We all have the power to make individual, small changes."

The inflow of plastic is more than the outflow, meaning groups like The Ocean Cleanup and other private or non-profit organizations are continuously looking for ways to stop the course of discarded plastic in its tracks.

The Ocean Cleanup will use this research to improve its methods of cleanup, including its technology to capture, concentrate, and ship the materials from the patch back to land. The technology will be tested in April, according to a spokesperson for the group.

Approximately half of the debris found in the patch is comprised of fishing gear, an alarming statistic for those who study marine life and ocean debris. Mallos describes the gear as "meant to kill," and when they are lost and discarded into oceans, they damage ecosystems and become deadly to marine life.

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"This is also consistent with what [the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] has found and is concerning because of the impacts this gear can have on a range of marine animals," wrote Nancy Wallace, the director of the NOAA's Marine Debris Program.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch isn't the only accumulation of debris in the world's oceans, water currents and wind also collect debris is four other areas known as gyres. Those are located in the South Pacific Ocean, the Indian Ocean, and the North and South Atlantic Ocean.

"Since the marine debris issue is caused by humans, we can make great strides in turning this problem around," wrote Wallace. "We need to focus on generating less waste and stopping the flow of debris into our waterways and ocean. This will take significant effort, but awareness around this issue is growing and people are willing to make changes to make an impact"

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