The Trash Island: what is it?

If you search online for ‘trash island,’ you’ll mostly see results related to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (along with images that mostly have nothing at all to do with the patch ). This patch is the largest of the five known garbage patches in the ocean. Located halfway between California and Hawaii, it spans an area twice the size of Texas, where ocean plastic accumulates in a vortex of converging currents. The garbage patch is constantly on the move, depending on the season. The plastic floating here is spread between the surface and a few meters’ depth. The patch is estimated to contain 80,000 metric tons of plastic, a weight equivalent to almost 600 Boeing 777s.

Great Pacific Garbage Patch in 2030 with and without cleanup. [scale units : kg/km2] With cleanup
Without cleanup
Great Pacific Garbage Patch in 2030 with and without cleanup. [scale: kg/km2]

Think plastic soup, not an island

Although this area has a high density of plastic compared to the surrounding ocean, it still resembles more of a thin soup than a dense mass that a person could stand on. In fact, the concentration of plastic varies widely – from so-called ‘hotspots,’ with hundreds of kilograms per square kilometer, to rather less dense areas with only 10 kilograms per square kilometer. And it’s exactly this dispersion that makes it harder to clean up the garbage patch. If the plastic was all in one place, you could simply scoop it up – but instead, the cleanup operation needs to target the ever-moving in order to make any cleanup effective.

System 002 in operation in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch
Footage from some of our extractions in the patch with our ocean system.
Plastic accumulating along the barrier of System 002
Plastic accumulating along the barrier of System 002
Plastic accumulating along the barrier of System 002
Plastic accumulating along the barrier of System 002

What does the patch look like?

Many wonder what the Great Pacific Garbage Patch looks like. The term ‘trash island’ was likely coined because it is easier to visualize, and it makes the problem more tangible. But this image is far from accurate.

At a quick glance, the garbage patch looks just like a vast ocean, especially in the areas with lower concentrations. But as you enter a hotspot or get closer to the surface, you’ll see plastic of all shapes and sizes floating by. If you trawl through the water, you’ll also find many smaller flakes of plastic, which have broken off from larger objects.

While we are working on detecting some of the larger objects from space, you won’t be able to pick up a mass of plastic on satellite imagery.

Trail of plastic floating in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch
Trail of plastic floating in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch
A selection of large objects observed in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch during the Aerial Expedition
A selection of large objects observed in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch during the Aerial Expedition
Plastic bottles floating in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch
Plastic bottles floating in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch
Manta trawl deployed during Mega Expedition.
Manta trawl deployed during Mega Expedition. With a trawl, you can see how much microplastic there is per area trawled.
Hotspot in GPGP
Plastic accumulation in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch

So why clean it up?

At the end of the day, it really doesn’t matter if we call it ‘trash island,’ ‘plastic soup,’ or ‘garbage patch.’ For example, LADbible made a campaign to raise awareness for the ‘trash isles’ in 2017, generating tremendous reach and engagement. The more people are aware of this massive plastic problem, the better. The plastic will not go away by itself; instead, it will break off into smaller pieces, becoming increasingly difficult to clean up – and more harmful. Our research also estimated that there is much more plastic in this area than biomass, indicating that plastic could be a primary ‘food’ source for marine life here. But, regardless of what it looks like, the reality is that 80,000 metric tons of plastic can – and must! – be cleaned up.

A sea turtle entangled in a ghost net
A sea turtle entangled in a ghost net. Photo credits: Francis Perez
Plastic found in the stomach of a single sea turtle
Plastic found in the stomach of a single sea turtle

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