Thursday, February 18, 2016

The Atlantic Garbage Patch: A Trash Vortex in the Ocean

Trash Litter on a Beach in Malaysia
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a relatively familiar problem for some people. They have heard of the huge trash swill that pollutes the northern Pacific Ocean. The trash swill that is so large that it is sometimes referred to as a "continent of garbage." This disgusting swirling mass of plastic and other waste has received some attention in the past few years. Now, a second, similar oceanic garbage patch is gaining some attention. That is the Atlantic Garbage Patch.

The Atlantic Garbage Patch is located in the northern Atlantic Ocean. We know that it is large–much larger than it should be. However, it is hard to determine just how big it is. Like its Pacific counterpart, it is amorphous, making it hard to measure. It is also hard to measure just how much plastic is there. It is much denser in some areas than in others. There is no telling which garbage patch is the larger of the two, at this point.

Millions, if not billions, of tiny pieces of plastic make up the bulk of the Atlantic Garbage Patch. These pieces are so small that they are easily mistaken for krill and plankton by larger fish. In fact, in the Pacific Garbage Patch, the plastic bits outnumber the plankton that feed the larger fish. It is unclear if the plastic is that dense in the Atlantic Garbage Patch. The densest area yet discovered in the Atlantic Garbage Patch by students with the Sea Education Association is 520,000 pieces per square mile. That is roughly half the density of the densest measured area of the Pacific Garbage Patch.

Plastic tends to float in seawater. The plastic in the Atlantic Garbage Patch is no exception. It bobs on or near the surface. It is a floating mass of plastic, as opposed to a solid mass. Ships can sail right through it and animals can swim through it, which probably is not a good thing. In the Atlantic Garbage Patch, most of the trash is small pieces of plastic that have been broken down. In the Pacific, plastic such as visibly whole plastic bags and plastic 6-pack rings can be seen floating beneath the surface. This poses many risks to wildlife.

It is interesting to note that researchers have concluded that the Atlantic Garbage Patch has not grown in the past 22 years. This may seem like a good thing, but it is not. Plastic use has increased exponentially in the past several years. It follows that much more plastic would be finding its way into the Atlantic Garbage Patch. If the researchers are right then the plastic is either sinking or breaking down into such small pieces that it could never be recovered, if the effort was ever made.


Lovett, Richard A., Huge Garbage Patch Found in Atlantic Too, retrieved 9/4/10,

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