HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - A new three-year mapping effort of the so-called Great Pacific Garbage Patch has discovered that the mass is significantly larger than previous estimates, containing as many as 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic and weighing nearly 80,000 metric tons.
The study, conducted by researchers commissioned by The Ocean Cleanup Foundation, was released Thursday in the academic journal Scientific Reports.
Scientists call the garbage patch, which is currently located about halfway between California and Hawaii, the 'largest accumulation zone for ocean plastics on Earth. Over the course of the survey, researchers measured the total size of the trash mass at more than 600,000 square miles – twice the size of Texas, and nearly three times the size of France.
"We were surprised by the amount of large plastic objects we encountered," said Dr. Julia Reisser, chief scientist of the expedition. "We used to think most of the debris consists of small fragments, but this new analysis shines a new light on the scope of the debris."
To get a more precise estimate of the scope of the garbage patch, researchers say they crossed the debris field with 30 vessels simultaneously, each equipped with surface sampling nets that collected plastic for testing purposes. Additionally, a C-130 aircraft was fitted with sensors that allowed it to "collect multispectral imagery and 3D scans of the ocean garbage."
The findings, according to the study, dramatically change our understanding of the mass' makeup. More than 75 percent of the total mass of the garbage patch is comprised of debris larger than 5 centimeters, which is the size threshold for items to be considered pieces of microplastic. The microplastics, however, account for an incredible 94 percent of the estimated 1.8 trillion pieces of debris floating in the area.
The study also suggests that pollution of plastic debris in and around the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is growing exponentially — at a much faster rate than in surrounding waters. Virtually all of the trash that was sampled by researchers in the patch — 99.9 percent of the 1.1 million pieces collected by researchers during their trawls — was plastic-based.