• The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a massive area measuring more than 1.6 million square kilometers, but it's just part of the North Pacific Gyre, an ocean region where currents collect plastic. 
  • Researchers from the Ocean Cleanup foundation conducted a survey of plastic in the area, using planes to observe from the sky and boats to trawl the water.
  • They found that the amount of plastic there seemed to be increasing exponentially and that there could be 16 times as much as previously thought.

Every little bit of plastic that gets tossed into the ocean or swept downstream out to sea either sinks or is picked up by currents. Much of it is eventually carried into one of five massive ocean regions, where plastic can be so concentrated that areas have garnered names like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

While "garbage patch" might make you think of something you pass by on the side of the road, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is less like a patch and more like a massive swirling vortex that is bigger than the size of South Africa, and more than three times the size of Spain.

And it's growing and collecting more plastic rapidly, according to a study published in the Nature journal Scientific Reports by researchers associated with the Ocean Cleanup foundation. There may be more than 16 times as much plastic in the vortex than previous studies have estimated, according to the Ocean Cleanup researchers.

An aerial view of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch might at first appear to be open water. But inside there's debris from all over the world — debris that traps or is eaten by marine animals, filling up their bodies to the point of being fatal and tainting our food supply.

More than 320 million metric tons of plastic are produced every year — and a disturbing amount of that ends up in the ocean, with much of it accumulating in places like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

Much of the Ocean Cleanup foundation's data on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch comes from a 2015 expedition involving 18 vessels.

The Ocean Cleanup, a Dutch organization started by a young entrepreneur named Boyan Slat, wants to launch a somewhat controversial effort to clean up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and has conducted research about the scale of the problem.

The ships trawled the waters using manta trawl nets outfitted with mesh to catch as much plastic as possible.

The area they focused on is a particularly concentrated part of one of the five global gyres where ocean currents collect plastic from around the world.

The region is huge, at more than 1.6 million square kilometers. 

For comparison, South Africa 1.22 million km²

In 2016, the Ocean Cleanup foundation used a Hercules C-130 aircraft to conduct an aerial survey of the region to refine its data and count larger pieces of plastic (greater than 50 centimeters).

The researchers collected 1,136,145 pieces of debris that weighed a total of 668 kilograms and was 99.9% plastic.

From that, the researchers estimated the area had at least 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic in the water, weighing 79,000 metric tons — with more arriving every minute of every day.

Some of the plastic the Ocean Cleanup team found while surveying the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

They estimated that 1.7 trillion pieces were microplastics, between 0.05 and 0.5 centimeters, but that 92% of the total plastic mass came from larger pieces.

Shockingly, they also estimated that 46% of the plastic mass was from lost fishing nets known as "ghost nets" that drift through the sea, ensnaring creatures and breaking into smaller bits of plastic.

The team also thinks the 2011 tsunami that hit Tohoku, Japan, could have added significantly to the mass of plastic.

This may vastly underestimate the amount of plastic in the area, both because the researchers measured only within the boundaries of the "patch" — not the full gyre — and because many others think there are far more microplastics deeper in the water.

While the foundation wants to push for a plan to clean up the plastic in the patch, many researchers think our best bet is stopping pollution from making it into the ocean in the first place.

Some of the plastic the Ocean Cleanup team found while surveying the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

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