NOAA's Response and Restoration Blog

An inside look at the science of cleaning up and fixing the mess of marine pollution


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Taking a Closer Look at Marine Debris in Your Backyard

Here's hoping your backyard doesn't look like this: debris scattered on the ocean floor near the Pacific Islands. (NOAA)

Here’s hoping your backyard doesn’t look like this: debris scattered on the ocean floor near the Pacific Islands. (NOAA)

Check out NOAA’s Marine Debris Blog for their ongoing series, Marine Debris in Your Backyard, which examines the unique challenges of marine debris and its impacts on various parts of the United States.

Join them as they “journey across the nation, looking at the nine different regions the NOAA Marine Debris Program spans and the most common types of debris found in them, and how it may have ended up there.”

So far, they have visited the following places:

  • Alaska, where remote beaches, rough seas, and limited fair weather mean volunteers have only a few months each year to remove anywhere from one to 25 tons of debris per mile of shoreline.
  • Great Lakes, where 21 percent of the world’s surface fresh water resides, discarded fishing lines often entangle wildlife, and rumors of a plastic-filled “garbage patch” are beginning to appear.
  • Pacific Islands, where Hawaii, Guam, American Samoa, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, and a whole lot of open ocean make up the largest region NOAA supports, but where there is so little space for landfills that NOAA helped establish a public-private partnership in Hawaii to turn abandoned fishing gear into a local electricity source.
  • California, where its 1,100 miles of shoreline vary from coastal mountains in the north to well-populated, sandy beaches in the south, and where the nation’s first “Trash Policy” will attempt to control the flow of garbage in California’s waterways.

Stay tuned as they continue working their way around the shores of the United States, and ask yourself, what does marine debris look like where you live? How do you help keep it out of the ocean?

And remember, even if you live hundreds of miles from a beach, a piece of litter such as a cigarette butt (which actually contains plastic) or a plastic bag can still make its way through storm drains and rivers to the ocean. This makes marine debris, no matter where you live, truly everyone’s problem.


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Is There a Garbage Patch in the Great Lakes?

This is a post by Sarah Opfer, NOAA Marine Debris Program Great Lakes Regional Coordinator.

Plastic debris in the form of fragments, bottle caps, food packaging, and smoking products are commonly found on Great Lake beaches. Here, marine debris has washed up at Maumee Bay State Park on the shores of Lake Erie. (NOAA Marine Debris Program)

Plastic debris in the form of fragments, bottle caps, food packaging, and smoking products are commonly found on Great Lake beaches. Here, marine debris has washed up at Maumee Bay State Park on the shores of Lake Erie. (NOAA Marine Debris Program)

The “Great Pacific Garbage Patch“—a purported island of trash twice the size of Texas floating in the Pacific Ocean—receives a lot of media attention. Recent reports suggest that a similar garbage patch may be developing in the Great Lakes as well.

However, based on research we know that the name “garbage patch” is misleading and that there is no island of trash forming in the middle of the ocean. We also know that there is no blanket of marine trash that is visible using current satellite or aerial photography.

Plastic debris is found in Great Lake waters as well. This debris was pulled from a Lake Erie marina during a cleanup. (NOAA Marine Debris Program)

Plastic debris is found in Great Lake waters as well. This debris was pulled from a Lake Erie marina during a cleanup. (NOAA Marine Debris Program)

Yet, there are places in the ocean where currents bring together lots and lots of floatable materials, such as plastics and other trash. While the types of litter gathering in these areas can vary greatly, from derelict fishing nets to balloons, the kind that is capturing the most attention right now are microplastics. These are small bits of plastic often not immediately evident to the naked eye.

While we know about the so-called “garbage patches” in the Pacific Ocean, could there be a similar phenomenon in other parts of the world, including the Great Lakes? Recent research on the distribution of plastics in the Great Lakes has people now asking that very question.

The Great Lakes are no mere group of puddles. They contain nearly 20% of the world’s surface freshwater and have a coastline longer than the East Coast of the United States. Within the Great Lakes system, water flows from Lake Superior and Lake Michigan, the lakes furthest west and highest in elevation, east into Lake Huron. From there, it travels through Lake St. Clair and the Detroit River into Lake Erie. Then, some 6 million cubic feet of water pass over Niagara Falls each minute and into Lake Ontario before flowing through the St. Lawrence River and into the Atlantic Ocean.

Average summer water circulation patterns in the Great Lakes. Beletsky et al. 1999 (NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory)

Average summer water circulation patterns in the Great Lakes. Beletsky et al. 1999 (NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory)

This water flow influences circulation patterns within and between each of the lakes. Currents within the Great Lakes also are powered by wind, waves, energy from the sun, water density differences, the shape of the lakebed, and the shoreline. These circulation currents have the tendency to create aggregations of garbage and debris in certain areas, just like in the oceans. But, just as in the Pacific Ocean, this doesn’t mean the Great Lakes have floating trash islands either.

In an effort to better identify and understand how plastic debris is spread throughout the Great Lakes, researchers at the University of Waterloo in Canada have partnered with COM DEV on an exploratory research project. COM DEV is a designer and manufacturer of space and remote sensing technology. Researchers are working with this industry partner to develop and test the ability of different remote sensors to detect plastics in the Great Lakes.

If they find the task is feasible and the trial runs prove to be effective, this work could be applied beyond the Great Lakes and across the United States. The NOAA Marine Debris Program, part of the Office of Response and Restoration, is engaged with and following the project. We plan to participate in the next steps of this promising effort. You can learn more about the project and a related workshop on plastic pollution in the Great Lakes.

Sarah Opfer

Sarah Opfer

Sarah Opfer received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in biology from Bowling Green State University and was a Knauss Sea Grant fellow with NOAA in 2009. She is based in Ohio and enjoys having Lake Erie in her back yard! While away from work she enjoys cooking, reading, kayaking, dreaming of places she wants to travel to, and spending time with her family.


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Where Are the Pacific Garbage Patches Located?

Microplastics in sand.

Microplastics, small plastics less than 5 millimeters long, are an increasingly common type of marine debris found in the water column (including the “garbage patches”) and on shorelines around the world. Based on research to date, most commonly used plastics do not fully degrade in the ocean and instead break down into smaller and smaller pieces. (NOAA Marine Debris Program)

The Pacific Ocean is massive. It’s the world’s largest and deepest ocean, and if you gathered up all of the Earth’s continents, these land masses would fit into the Pacific basin with a space the size of Africa to spare.

While the Pacific Ocean holds more than half of the planet’s free water, it also unfortunately holds a lot of the planet’s garbage (much of it plastic). But that trash isn’t spread evenly across the Pacific Ocean; a great deal of it ends up suspended in what are commonly referred to as “garbage patches.”

A combination of oceanic and atmospheric forces causes trash, free-floating sea life (for example, algae, plankton, and seaweed), and a variety of other things to collect in concentrations in certain parts of the ocean. In the Pacific Ocean, there are actually a few “Pacific garbage patches” of varying sizes as well as other locations where marine debris is known to accumulate.

The Eastern Pacific Garbage Patch (aka “Great Pacific Garbage Patch”)

In most cases when people talk about the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” they are referring to the Eastern Pacific garbage patch. This is located in a constantly moving and changing swirl of water roughly midway between Hawaii and California, in an atmospheric area known as the North Pacific Subtropical High.

NOAA National Weather Service meteorologist Ted Buehner describes the North Pacific High as involving “a broad area of sinking air resulting in higher atmospheric pressure, drier warmer temperatures and generally fair weather (as a result of the sinking air).”

This high pressure area remains in a semi-permanent state, affecting the movement of the ocean below. “Winds with high pressure tend to be light(er) and blow clockwise in the northern hemisphere out over the open ocean,” according to Buehner.

As a result, plastic and other debris floating at sea tend to get swept into the calm inner area of the North Pacific High, where the debris becomes trapped by oceanic and atmospheric forces and builds up at higher concentrations than surrounding waters. Over time, this has earned the area the nickname “garbage patch”—although the exact content, size, and location of the associated marine debris accumulations are still difficult to pin down.

Map of ocean currents, features, and areas of marine debris accumulation (including "garbage patches") in the Pacific Ocean.

This map is an oversimplification of ocean currents, features, and areas of marine debris accumulation (including “garbage patches”) in the Pacific Ocean. There are numerous factors that affect the location, size, and strength of all of these features throughout the year, including seasonality and El Nino/La Nina. (NOAA Marine Debris Program)

The Western Pacific Garbage Patch

On the opposite side of the Pacific Ocean, there is another so-called “garbage patch,” or area of marine debris buildup, off the southeast coast of Japan. This is the lesser known and studied, Western Pacific garbage patch. Southeast of the Kuroshio Extension (ocean current), researchers believe that this garbage patch is a small “recirculation gyre,” an area of clockwise-rotating water, much like an ocean eddy (Howell et al., 2012).

North Pacific Subtropical Convergence Zone

While not called a “garbage patch,” the North Pacific Subtropical Convergence Zone is another place in the Pacific Ocean where researchers have documented concentrations of marine debris. A combination of oceanic and atmospheric forces create this convergence zone, which is positioned north of the Hawaiian Islands but moves seasonally and dips even farther south toward Hawaii during El Niño years (Morishige et al., 2007, Pichel et al., 2007). The North Pacific Convergence Zone is an area where many open-water marine species live, feed, or migrate and where debris has been known to accumulate (Young et al. 2009). Hawaii’s islands and atolls end up catching a notable amount of marine debris as a result of this zone dipping southward closer to the archipelago (Donohue et al. 2001, Pichel et al., 2007).

But the Pacific Ocean isn’t the only ocean with marine debris troubles. Trash from humans is found in every ocean, from the Arctic (Bergmann and Klages, 2012) to the Antarctic (Eriksson et al., 2013), and similar oceanic processes form high-concentration areas where debris gathers in the Atlantic Ocean and elsewhere.

You can help keep trash from becoming marine debris by (of course) reducing, reusing, and recycling; by downloading the NOAA Marine Debris Tracker app for your smartphone; and by learning more at http://marinedebris.noaa.gov.

Carey Morishige, Pacific Islands regional coordinator for the NOAA Marine Debris Program, also contributed to this post.

Literature Cited

Bergmann, M. and M. Klages. 2012. Increase of litter at the Arctic deep-sea observatory HAUSGARTEN. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 64: 2734-2741.

Donohue, M.J., R.C. Boland, C.M. Sramek, and G.A Antonelis. 2001. Derelict fishing gear in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands: diving surveys and debris removal in 1999 confirm threat to coral reef ecosystems. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 42 (12): 1301-1312.

Eriksson, C., H. Burton, S. Fitch, M. Schulz, and J. van den Hoff. 2013. Daily accumulation rates of marine debris on sub-Antarctic island beaches. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 66: 199-208.

Howell, E., S. Bograd, C. Morishige, M. Seki, and J. Polovina. 2012. On North Pacific circulation and associated marine debris concentration. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 65: 16-22.

Morishige, C., M. Donohue, E. Flint, C. Swenson, and C. Woolaway. 2007. Factors affecting marine debris deposition at French Frigate Shoals, Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument, 1990-2002. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 54: 1162-1169.

Pichel, W.G., J.H. Churnside, T.S. Veenstra, D.G. Foley, K.S. Friedman, R.E. Brainard, J.B. Nicoll, Q. Zheng and P. Clement-Colon. 2007. Marine debris collects within the North Pacific Subtropical Convergence Zone [PDF]. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 54: 1207-1211.

Young L. C., C. Vanderlip, D. C. Duffy, V. Afanasyev, and S. A. Shaffer. 2009. Bringing home the trash: do colony-based differences in foraging distribution lead to increased plastic ingestion in Laysan albatrosses? PLoS ONE 4 (10).


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How Much Would it Cost to Clean up the Pacific Garbage Patches?

This is a post by Carey Morishige, Pacific Islands Regional Coordinator for the NOAA Marine Debris Program.

Over the last several years, the infamous “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” has gained popularity. Whether described as an island of trash or a soup of plastic, it has haunted the dreams of ocean conservationists. As I described in my last post, there are a lot of misconceptions about the so-called garbage patch, among them the size and amount of marine debris entrained in this area.

To understand the many unknowns about the “garbage patch,” you must first understand what the area really is. In a nutshell, it is a large area of marine debris concentration caused by the clockwise movement of the surface of the ocean. Sailors and fishermen have known of this area for decades—to them it is the North Pacific Subtropical High, a high pressure zone typically avoided by sailors.

One of the common questions we receive is: Why can’t we go out and clean this area up? Sounds easy and simple—if only it was! There are many factors that must be taken into account, such as the fact that these areas of concentrated marine debris move and change throughout the year and many of these areas also have abundant sea life, much of which is microscopic.

Let’s crunch some quick and dirty numbers on the cost of a cleanup:

Suppose we were to attempt to clean up less than 1% of the North Pacific Ocean (a 3-degree swath between 30° and 35°N and 150° to 180°W), which would be approximately 1,000,000 km2. Assume we hired a boat with an 18 ft (5.5 m) beam and surveyed the area within 100 m off of each side of the ship.  If the ship traveled at 11 knots (20 km/hour), and surveyed during daylight hours (approximately 10 hours a day), it would take 67 ships one year to cover that area! At a cost of $5,000-20,000/day, it would cost between $122M and $489M for the year.  That’s a lot of money—and that’s only for boat time. It doesn’t include equipment or labor costs (keep in mind that not all debris items can be scooped up with a net).

Derelict fishing net floating in the open ocean.

Derelict fishing nets are frequently encountered marine debris items and cannot easily be scooped up with net. Credit: NOAA Fisheries Observer Program

The ultimate solution to the global problem of marine debris is not in clean up and removal (we can do that every day for the rest of our lives). The solution lies in prevention—stopping marine debris at the source; preventing trash from getting into our oceans and waterways in the first place!

For more information on the garbage patch and ways that you can help prevent marine debris, check out the NOAA Marine Debris Program website.

This originally was posted on the NOAA Marine Debris Blog.


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How Big Is the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch”? Science vs. Myth

While everything may be bigger in Texas, some reports about the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” would lead you to believe that this marine mass of plastic is bigger than Texas—maybe twice as big as the Lone Star State, or even twice as big as the continental U.S.

For NOAA, a national science agency, separating science from science fiction about the Pacific garbage patch (and other “garbage patches”) is important when answering people’s questions about what it is and how we should deal with the problem. (For the record, no scientifically sound estimates exist for the size or mass of these garbage patches.)

Map of garbage patches and convergence zones in the Pacific Ocean.

Marine debris accumulation locations in the North Pacific Ocean.

The NOAA Marine Debris Program’s Carey Morishige takes down two myths floating around with the rest of the debris about the garbage patches in a recent post on the Marine Debris Blog:

  1. There is no “garbage patch,” a name which conjures images of a floating landfill in the middle of the ocean, with miles of bobbing plastic bottles and rogue yogurt cups. Morishige explains this misnomer:

While it’s true that these areas have a higher concentration of plastic than other parts of the ocean, much of the debris found in these areas are small bits of plastic (microplastics) that are suspended throughout the water column. A comparison I like to use is that the debris is more like flecks of pepper floating throughout a bowl of soup, rather than a skim of fat that accumulates (or sits) on the surface.

She’s not downplaying the significance of microplastics. They are nearly ubiquitous today—degrading into tiny bits from a range of larger plastic items* [PDF] and now turning up in everything from face scrubs to fleece jackets. Yet their impacts on marine life mostly remain a big unknown.

  1. There are many “garbage patches,” and by that, we mean that trash congregates to various degrees in numerous parts of the Pacific and the rest of the ocean. These natural gathering points appear where rotating currents, winds, and other ocean features converge to accumulate marine debris, as well as plankton, seaweed, and other sea life. (Find out more about these “convergence zones” in the ocean and a NOAA study of marine debris concentrations in the North Pacific Subtropical Convergence Zone [PDF].)

Any way you look at these “peppery soups” of plastic in the Pacific, none of the debris should be there. The NOAA Marine Debris website and blog have lots of great information and references if you want to learn more about the garbage patch issue.

Next up, Morishige digs into how feasible it is to clean up the so-called garbage patches.

Looking for more information about the “garbage patches”?

*Updated July 10, 2012. **Updated Jan. 28,  2013 to correct a statement incorrectly identifying the North Pacific Subtropical Convergence Zone as what is referred to as the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch.”

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