Ever wondered where all that plastic goes? All those bags and pens and disposable lighters and product packaging, all that discarded junk we give so little thought to when we rip it off our latest purchase…

All safely buried as landfill somewhere, eventually to provide a nice stable hectare or two for another housing development, you say? Some of it maybe. But not all. By no means all. A hundred million tons of the stuff ends up in what’s come to be called the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch”.

100 Million Tons of Plastic

In the central North Pacific Ocean there’s something called the North Pacific Gyre. A gyre is a large system of rotating ocean currents – you could picture it as an enormous, very slow-moving whirlpool drawing water into itself. The one in the North Pacific draws water from places as far away as Japan and North America and sits between Japan and the California coast.

Ordinarily, this wouldn’t be anything to comment about, and for most of its history the North Pacific Gyre has been a rather stationary and dull area of the planet – only sparsely populated with the larger forms of marine life (though filled with phytoplankton) and avoided by sailors due to its lack of wind (they dubbed it The Horse Latitudes). Trouble is that the currents which feed the gyre bring with them mind-boggling amounts of plastic, and when this plastic gets to the gyre it just sits there, building up year after year.

Given the size of the ocean, a clump of plastic rubbish doesn’t seem much of a problem, right? Well, estimates of the size of this “clump” range from the size of Texas, to twice the size of the entire continental United States. And it’s a hundred feet deep.

And estimates of how much all that plastic weighs? 100 million tons.

Where Does it all Come From?

About a fifth of this plastic garbage is dumped into the sea by ships, but the rest originates on land. The North Pacific Garbage Dump contains everything from plastic bottles and toys to abandoned fishing nets and canoes. It is also packed with nurdles – minute plastic pellets that are the raw material used by plastic goods manufacturers, or form when larger pieces of plastic fragment.

Why Plastic?

The North Pacific Garbage Dump is primarily composed of plastic, as opposed to any other kind of refuse, due to two of the qualities that make the material so useful and attractive to humans – it floats and is doesn’t biodegrade.


Although plastic doesn’t biodegrade it does go undergo photodegradation. During this process a plastic item will disintegrate into ever smaller fragments. Unlike debris which biodegrade, though, these fragments are still plastic – they never (or not for hundreds of years) break down into simpler, less harmful, compounds.

One of the great problems of photodegradation is that the fragments of plastic become so small they enter the food chain. First ingested by marine organisms, this microscopic plastic can eventually end up in the fish on our dinner plates.

Toxic Effects

Apart from the damaging impact plastic can have as a foreign presence in the bodies of marine life, another of its properties makes it even more dangerous. Nurdles, over time, absorb toxins from the surrounding water. Poisonous chemicals that may be at survivable levels when diluted in the ocean can, in this way, become so concentrated in plastic masses that they threaten entire colonies of marine life.

Seabirds, too are at risk from ingesting the trash that is clogging the North Pacific Gyre when they mistake it for food. Some estimates of worldwide avian fatality due to plastic ingestion or entrapment exceed a million birds per year.

What do We Do?

Presently, the idea of trying to trawl the ocean and sieve out this plastic threat does not seem feasible. The ocean is too big, there is too much rubbish and the process would harm plankton and other marine life.

The consensus of expert opinion recommends managing plastic waste on land, before it ever gets a chance to make its way to the North Pacific Gyre and clog our oceans.

How can we New Zealanders do our bit? It isn’t complicated. You don’t need to study a book or become a member of Greenpeace. Simply: recycle, reuse and pressure companies to use environmentally safe packaging and processes by wisely choosing where you spend your consumer dollars.

One Final Word

In case the Great Pacific Garbage Patch seems too distant a threat to fully appreciate, think on this statistic: in 2006 the UN Environment Programme estimated that, on average, every square mile of ocean on the planet contains 46,000 pieces of plastic.

Learn more about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in this video.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch – How to Help, 2.3 out of 5 based on 9 ratings

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