Islands of Refuse

By Diane Van Hook

Giant islands of plastic garbage are floating in the ocean right now. Within the five major ocean gyres, or large systems of circulating currents (North & South Pacific, North & South Atlantic, and Indian Ocean), plastic refuse that has washed out to sea has accumulated into ocean-made mobile islands of the stuff.

The largest is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, whose minimum measurements put it between roughly the size of Texas to covering the continental U.S. twice over. Its lesser-known and slightly smaller equivalent resides in the North Atlantic gyre, dubbed the North Atlantic Garbage Patch. First noticed in 1972, the garbage patch has been largely ignored until recent years. Most studies tend to focus on the one in the Pacific.

The exact size of the North Atlantic Garbage Patch is difficult to measure, as it slips through, invisible to satellite coverage and sometimes the naked eye, despite the fact that researchers estimate it to contain at least 200,000 pieces of plastic per square kilometer (or 0.386 square miles).

The greatest danger is the smaller pieces, or microplastics, ending up in the food chain, even aside from disrupting the chemical composition of the ocean and damaging the natural marine habitats. Marine life has been washed ashore or found dead with stomachs full of plastic.

Most marine scientists largely qualify any sort of massive cleanup as impossible, costing trillions of dollars and thousands of years. Others disagree.

Recent attempts to raise awareness came from an artist from Brooklyn, a Dutch teen, and a Belgian architect. In 2010, Brooklyn artist George Boorujy was inspired to use messages in a bottle to try to raise awareness of the garbage patch, sending off 19 bottles with the project name to track the currents. One got as far afield as France.

While diving in Greece, then 16-year-old Boyan Slat was shocked to find that the plastic in the water vastly outnumbered the fish. Since then, he’s led the largest crowd-funding campaign in history, raising over $2 million. He founded The Ocean Cleanup, conducting research and engineering a system of weighted mobile catching units using the ocean’s currents to take the catchers to the heaviest concentration of plastics. The materials emptied from the units would then be sold for recycling, making the long-term project self-sustaining.

Slat is currently focused on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, as is Vincent Callebaut, who hopes to use the Pacific patch’s material for his Oceanscrapers concept. Capable of housing 20,000 people each, these self-sustaining buildings would hold 250 floors and reach 3,280 feet below sea level. It would also house offices, recreational areas, hotels, and science labs.

Unfortunately, these garbage patches are symptoms of a man-made problem. Production of plastic products continues to rise, mostly unchecked, and who knows how much will end up in the gyres?




Bort, R. “A Brooklyn artist, the North Atlantic garbage patch and the magic of the message in a bottle.” Newsweek. Accessed September 25, 2017.

Carpenter, Edward J., and K. L. Smith. “Plastics on the Sargasso Sea Surface.” Science. March 17, 1972. Accessed September 25, 2017.

Jenkins, T. “Plans for underwater ‘oceanscraper’ revealed.” CNN. Accessed September 25, 2017.

“The Ocean Cleanup.” Accessed September 25, 2017.

“Scientists discover giant rubbish island.” NewsComAu. February 25, 2010. Accessed September 26, 2017.

Seeker. “Slide Show: The Great Atlantic Garbage Patch.” Accessed September 25, 2017.

Venema, V. “Mopping up a sea of plastic.” BBC News. Accessed September 25, 2017.