'Great Pacific garbage patch' sprawling with far more debris than thought

The patch of detritus is more than twice the size of France and is up to 16 times larger than previously estimated.

 The Ocean Cleanup at work. It is estimated there will be more waste plastic in the sea than fish by the year 2050. Photograph: The Ocean Cleanup

The Ocean Cleanup at work. It is estimated there will be more waste plastic in the sea than fish by the year 2050. Photograph: The Ocean Cleanup

An enormous area of rubbish floating in the Pacific Ocean is teeming with far more debris than previously thought, heightening alarm that the world’s oceans are being increasingly choked by trillions of pieces of plastic.

The sprawling patch of detritus – spanning 1.6m sq km, (617,763 sq miles) more than twice the size of France – contains at least 79,000 tons of plastic, new research published in Scientific Reports has found. This mass of waste is up to 16 times larger than previous estimates and provides a sobering challenge to a team that will start an ambitious attempt to clean up the vast swath of the Pacific this summer.

The analysis, conducted by boat and air surveys taken over two years, found that pollution in the so-called Great Pacific garbage patch is almost exclusively plastic and is “increasing exponentially”. Microplastics, measuring less than 0.5cm (0.2in), make up the bulk of the estimated 1.8tn pieces floating in the garbage patch, which is kept in rough formation by a swirling ocean gyre.

While tiny fragments of plastic are the most numerous, nearly half of the weight of rubbish is composed of discarded fishing nets. Other items spotted in the stew of plastic include bottles, plates, buoys, ropes and even a toilet seat.

“I’ve been doing this research for a while, but it was depressing to see,” said Laurent Lebreton, an oceanographer and lead author of the study. Lebreton works for the Ocean Cleanup, a Dutch-based non-profit that is aiming to tackle the garbage patch.

“There were things you just wondered how they made it into the ocean. There’s clearly an increasing influx of plastic into the garbage patch.

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