JULY 19, 2012 -- Over the last several years, the infamous "Great Pacific Garbage Patch" has become quite a phenomenon. Whether described as an island of trash or a soup of plastic, it has haunted the dreams of ocean conservationists. There are a lot of misconceptions about the so-called garbage patch, among them the size and amount of marine debris entrained in this area. To understand the many unknowns about the "garbage patch," you must first understand what the area really is: a large area of concentrated marine debris, which is caused by the clockwise movement of the surface of the ocean. Sailors and fishermen have known of this area for decades—to them it is the North Pacific Subtropical High, a high pressure zone typically avoided by sailors.
Why Can't We Clean it up?
So, why can't we go out and clean up this area? Unfortunately, there are many factors that must be taken into account. Two major factors are that these areas of concentrated marine debris move and change throughout the year and that many of these areas also harbor abundant sea life, much of which is microscopic.
How Much Would it Cost to Clean it up?
Even with all of that in mind, let's perform a rough estimate on the cost of a hypothetical cleanup: Suppose we were to attempt to clean up less than 1% of the North Pacific Ocean (a 3-degree swath between 30° and 35°N and 150° to 180°W), which would be approximately 1,000,000 km2. Assume we hired a boat with an 18 ft (5.5 m) beam and surveyed the area within 100 m off of each side of the ship. If the ship traveled at 11 knots (20 km/hour), and surveyed during daylight hours (approximately 10 hours a day), it would take 67 ships one year to cover that area! At a cost of $5,000-20,000 per day, it would cost between $122 million and $489 million for the year. That's a lot of money—and that's only for boat time. It doesn't include equipment or labor costs. Also, keep in mind that not all debris items can be scooped up with a net.
How Do We Fix it?
The ultimate solution to the global problem of marine debris is not in clean up and removal (we can do that every day for the rest of our lives). The solution lies in prevention—stopping marine debris at the source. That means preventing trash from getting into our oceans and waterways in the first place. For more information on the garbage patch and ways that you can help prevent marine debris, check out the NOAA Marine Debris Program website.