The Great Pacific Garbage Patch

First Posted: Jun 08, 2012 03:17 PM EDT

Just beneath the surface of the water in the North Pacific lies a floating island that would make one hesitate to call 'paradise.' Instead, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, or the Pacific Trash Vortex, is a large island of debris and plastic that shows how our much of an ecological footprint humans leave on the planet.

The size of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch has been estimated to be somewhere between 270,000 square miles up to 5,800,000 square miles. 

The floating island of trash is mostly made of plastics, chemical sludge, and debris. Most of the trash floats under the surface of the water, making it almost impossible to view from the air or the deck of boats. Instead, samples must be taken for the concentrations of plastics in the water.

"The original idea that people had was that it was an island of plastic garbage that you could almost walk on. It is not quite like that. It is almost like a plastic soup. It is endless for an area that is maybe twice the size as continental United States," said Marcus Eriksen, a research director of the US-based Algalita Marine Research Foundation.

The Algalita Marine Research Foundation was founded by Charles Moore, an American oceanographer who first discovered the island of trash in the North Pacific Gyre.

According to Moore, there may be up to 100 million tons of trash floating in the region.

Plastics break down over a long period of time being exposed to the sun's rays. Sometimes, this process can take decades. The Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego found that "microplastic" pieces - bits of plastic smaller than 5 millimeters - has increased by a factor of 100 since the 1970's and found that 10 percent of fish they studied had eaten plastic.

One-fifth of the trash comes from ships, with the other four-fifths coming mostly from land.

Around 1.5 million tons of debris from the Japanese tsunami disaster are floating around in the Pacific. A whole fishing dock recently washed up in Oregon.

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