Gigantic plastic-waste island in Pacific Ocean is 16 times larger than previously thought

A giant island of plastic waste which has gathered in the Pacific Ocean contains as much as 16 times more debris than previously thought, according to a new study.

The so-called garbage patch in waters between California and Hawaii consists of fishing nets, plastic containers, packaging and ropes, said the Ocean Cleanup Foundation, which has led a study on the island.

1.8 trillion pieces of plastic weighing 80,000 metric tons are currently afloat in an area known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP) and the foundation believes the problem is “rapidly” getting worse.

These conclusions were reached after a three year mapping effort conducted by an international team of scientists affiliated with the Foundation, six universities and an aerial sensor company.

The research using aerial images revealed the mass of trash is much denser - as much as 16 times more dense - than had previously been estimated.

“It’s shocking,” said Joost Dubois, a spokesman for the Netherlands-based Ocean Cleanup Foundation, which led the team of researchers from seven countries.

The GPGP is located halfway between Hawaii and California and is the largest accumulation zone for ocean plastics on Earth.

Conventionally, researchers have used single, fine-meshed nets, typically less than a meter in size, in an attempt to quantify the problem.

However, this method yields high uncertainty because of the small surface area that is covered.

Additionally, these methods could not measure the magnitude of the problem to its fullest extent, because all sampling nets - small and large - were unable to capture objects greater than the size of the net.

In order to analyse the full extent of the GPGP, the team conducted the most comprehensive sampling effort of the GPGP to date by crossing the debris field with 30 vessels simultaneously, supplemented by two aircraft surveys.

Although most vessels were equipped with standard surface sampling nets, the fleet's mothership RV Ocean Starr also trawled two six-meter-wide devices, which allowed the team to sample medium to large-sized objects.

Nearly 200 nations late last year signed a United Nations resolution to eliminate plastic pollution in the sea, a move some hope will pave the way to a legally binding treaty.

In another way of describing its size, Joost said it is made up of enough trash to fill 500 jumbo jets.

The plastic has accumulated into a mass due to currents, scientists say. The research studied a patch of more than 1.6m square kilometres of the ocean.

A petroleum-based product, plastic disintegrates slowly, and one item pulled from the patch was about 40 years old, they said.

It harms marine life by killing creatures such as turtles and dolphins that ingest it, and it harms humans by entering the food chain in the form of microplastics, said Dubois.

“We’re basically poisoning our own food, especially for those of us relying on fish for our diet,” he added.

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