A massive collection of plastic and floating trash continues to expand in a region halfway between Hawaii and California. Converging low winds and ocean currents funnel marine debris into a central location, known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP).
The trash comes from countries around the Pacific Rim, such as nations in Asia as well as North and South America.
The GPGP is the largest of five offshore plastic accumulation zones in the world's oceans, according to the Ocean Cleanup Foundation.
A recent study published in the journal Scientific Reports on Thursday, March 22, found that the GPGP has grown to more than 600,000 square miles, which is twice the size of Texas or three times the size of France.
Accumulated in this area are 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic, weighing 80.000 metric tons, the equivalent of 500 Jumbo Jets.
Mega Expedition mothership; R/V Ocean Starr crew pulling a ghost net from the Pacific Ocean, 2015. (The Ocean Cleanup)
Ghost net lifted aboard the Mega Expedition mothership R/V Ocean Starr, 2015. (The Ocean Cleanup)
While 92 percent of the mass is compromised of larger objects, only 8 percent of the mass contains microplastics, which are pieces smaller than 5 mm in size.
The new analysis reveals the region contains as much as 16 times more plastic than previously estimated, with pollution levels increasing exponentially.
"We were surprised by the amount of large plastic objects we encountered", Dr. Julia Reisser, chief scientist of the expeditions, said. "We used to think most of the debris consists of small fragments, but this new analysis shines a new light on the scope of the debris."
The study conclusions were largely based on a three-year mapping effort conducted by an international team of scientists affiliated with the Ocean Cleanup Foundation, six universities and an aerial sensor company.
The GPGP was first discovered in the early 1990s, and researchers have conventionally used single, fine-meshed nets, typically less than a meter in size, in an attempt to quantify the problem, according to the Ocean Cleanup.
This method yields high uncertainty because only a small surface area is covered. These methods are not able to measure the magnitude of the problem, because all of the sampling nets were unable to capture objects greater than the size of the net.
"The team conducted the most comprehensive sampling effort of the GPGP to date by crossing the debris field with 30 vessels simultaneously, supplemented by two aircraft surveys," the Ocean Cleanup website reads.
The fleet collected a total of 1.2 million plastic samples, while the aerial sensors scanned more than 300 kilometers of ocean surface.
The team found that plastic pollution levels within the GPGP have been growing exponentially since all ocean pollution measurements began in the 1970s.
"Although it is not possible to draw any firm conclusions on the persistency of plastic pollution in the GPGP yet, this plastic accumulation rate inside the GPGP, which was greater than in the surrounding waters, indicates that the inflow of plastic into the patch continues to exceed the outflow," Laurent Lebreton, lead author of the study, said.
A young monk seal on Laysan Island holds a plastic fragment in his mouth. (The Ocean Cleanup/Matthew Chauvin)
Debris can be very harmful to marine life in the patch. For example, loggerhead sea turtles often mistake plastic bags for jellies, a major food source, according to National Geographic.
Ocean pollution disturbs not only marine food webs, but also the entire food web.
No nation will take responsibility or provide funding to cleanup the GPGP because it is far from any nation's coastline, according to National Geographic.
The lack of global action increases the relevance of organizations with cleanup plans, such as the Ocean Cleanup.
"To be able to solve a problem, we believe it is essential to first understand it. These results provide us with key data to develop and test our cleanup technology, but it also underlines the urgency of dealing with the plastic pollution problem," Boyan Slat, founder of The Ocean Cleanup and co-author of the study, said. "Since the results indicate that the amount of hazardous microplastics is set to increase more than tenfold if left to fragment, the time to start is now."