Ocean Garbage Patches

Elizabeth Borneman


Ocean garbage patches are concentrations of marine debris located in the North Pacific Ocean. These garbage patches are comprised of many different kinds of materials and, although they are located in the same region, often change shape and form because of the influence of tides and other climate factors.

Many people refer to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch as one major entity, while in actuality it is less of a floating garbage island and more of a loose conglomeration of debris that floats together and apart based on tides and material composition. Researchers who study the Great Pacific Garbage Patch are unable to determine exactly where the garbage patch boundaries are due to the dispersal effects of the ocean water, but have determined that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch can be loosely divided into three sections.

The sections of the garbage patch can be considered the Western Garbage Patch, the Eastern Garbage Patch, and the Subtropical Convergence Zone. All of these patches join and break apart depending on the season and climate around them. The Western Garbage Patch is located off the coast of Japan, the Eastern Garbage Patch off of the western coast of the United States, and the Subtropical Convergence Zone along the upper arc of the North Pacific.

Concentrations of marine debris known as the Ocean Garbage Patch in the North Pacific Ocean.  Map: NOAA.
Concentrations of marine debris known as the Ocean Garbage Patch in the North Pacific Ocean. Map: NOAA.

How are Ocean Garbage Patches Formed?

Garbage patches are formed by debris, mostly plastics, that are dumped into the ocean from ships, oil platforms, and river sources like rivers or ocean ports that are a dumping ground for land debris. The items located in the garbage patches include plastic bags, milk jugs, footballs, and other small bits and pieces of materials that have a very slow decomposition rate. These items are usually very light and are buoyed by the ocean which makes them very easy to move with the ocean currents.

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In some places the garbage patches have been measured at 33 feet deep below the surface of the ocean; the buoyancy of the plastics and other materials in the garbage patches push other, heavier materials under the surface creating the ‘floating island’ effect of the patches. When people have done research on the garbage patches they often sailed through this massive formation because satellites are often unable to get an accurate picture of where the garbage patches are.

Estimates range in how much garbage is contained in the garbage patches, but some researchers say there is approximately 100 million tons of trash floating in the Pacific Ocean. Not only is this a hazard to sailors and sea life, but humans can also experience negative effects of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in a myriad of ways.

The garbage patches are created by the swirling currents of the Pacific Ocean that are caused by the subtropical zones to the north and south. These subtropical high pressure systems drive ocean currents in particular patterns that create a massive swirling effects, galled a gyre. These gyres can be big or small and exist all over the world; however, the particular convergence of the gyres in the Pacific Ocean has created the proper atmosphere for the continuation of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

There are many different effects of the garbage patches in the Pacific Ocean, and none of them are beneficial. The garbage patch is a major health problem for sea animals including fish, birds, whales, and others. These animals ingest the materials in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and often die or suffer long-lasting health effects because of the inedible nature of the debris. In addition to causing an estimated hundreds of thousands of sea animal deaths every year the garbage patch can affect humans as well.

A dead Laysan albatross chick, showing a belly full of plastic garbage.  Photo: Claire Fackler, NOAA.
A dead Laysan albatross chick, showing a belly full of plastic garbage. Photo: Claire Fackler, NOAA.

Fish caught in the Pacific Ocean have been cut open and revealed to have dangerous plastics and other harmful, manmade materials that they have ingested because of ocean pollution. These materials, while sometimes obvious, can also be in the fish’s bloodstream or muscle tissues. When humans eat that fish they can suffer harmful health effects because of the materials the fish ingested during its life. By cleaning up ocean garbage patches we can help keep our food, and ourselves, healthier.


The ocean currents will continue to spread this material throughout the ocean, and as the garbage patches grow bigger there will only be an increase in ocean pollution worldwide.

There are no agreed upon permanent solutions to the ocean garbage patch problem, but there are many organizations who are researching the effects of the garbage patches and doing what they can to clean it up. Not only does there need to be a concentrated effort to clean up the ocean right now, but people also have to be committed to cleaning up their lifestyles in order to prevent more materials getting into our oceans. This will take a lot of work, but for the safety of our climate, delicate ecological zones, and the health of our sea life and human life as well, a comprehensive clean-up program needs to be implemented.


National Ocean Service. What is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch? 11 August 2014. http://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/garbagepatch.html

Lineback, Neal; Gritzner, Mandy Lineback. National Geographic. Geography in the News: Swirling Ocean Garbage Dumps. 3 September 2014. http://newswatch.nationalgeographic.com/2014/09/03/geography-in-the-news-swirling-ocean-garbage-dumps/

Ocean Portal. Ocean Trash Plaguing Our Sea. Smithsonian National Musuem of Natural History. 2014. http://ocean.si.edu/ocean-news/ocean-trash-plaguing-our-sea

Marine Debris. Great Pacific Garbage Patch Wiki. 2014.http://marinedebris.info/wiki/great-pacific-garbage-patch

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About the author
Elizabeth Borneman
My name is Elizabeth Borneman and I am a freelance writer, reader, and coffee drinker. I live on a small island in Alaska, which gives me plenty of time to fish, hike, kayak, and be inspired by nature. I enjoy writing about the natural world and find lots of ways to flex my creative muscles on the beach, in the forest, or down at the local coffee shop.