Spanning the Pacific Ocean is the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, which is a clockwise spinning spiral of ocean currents. These currents have caught garbage thrown into the ocean and caused them to converge in the middle. This created two (an Eastern and Western) Garbage Patches. Both patches are connected by a 6,000 long mile current called the “Subtropical Convergence Zone,” creating one, massive as one, and referred to as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
There are approximately 100 million tons of garbage (mostly plastic) in the Pacific Garbage patch. As langg said, this concentrated area of garbage in the Pacific is created by whirlpool type currents (the places created by these currents are called gyres). Most of the plastic in the patch has been broken down into small, pea-size pieces after years of being in the ocean; because the pieces are so small it takes special nets to gather them.
Considering the U.S. alone throws away 30 million tons of plastic every year, and that every piece of plastic ever manufactured still exists, that adds up to a lot of waste very quickly. Unfortunately, about 10% of all plastics in land fills end up in the ocean, due to rainfall runoff, rivers, and sewage. It ends up in the Garbage Patch is because it’s swept up into that pattern by the ocean’s natural currents.
Other garbage patches similar to the Pacific patch have been forming in various convergence zones of the other oceans, although none of them have reached the size or extent of the Pacific patch, which continues to grow. A big part of the culprit is the rapid rise in living standards and consumption levels among developing nations in Asia, while fishing nets alone contribute as much as 20% of the volume of the garbage patch.
Since oceanic garbage patches ultimately form because humans allow plastic to get into the oceans, the best way to start fixing the problem is to prevent it from getting there in the first place. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration maintains a resource toolkit for studying marine debris (see below), and at least one nonprofit-industry partnership works to prevent the formation of marine debris and provide incentives for proper management of discarded commercial fishing gear.
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