In the Pacific Ocean between California and Hawaii, hundreds of miles from any major city, plastic bottles, children's toys, broken electronic devices, abandoned fishing nets and millions more of fragments float in the water - at least 87,000 tons, they said. investigators Thursday.
In recent years, this notorious disaster has become known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a swirling ocean graveyard where everyday objects are dumped by currents. Plastics eventually disintegrate into tiny particles that fish often eat and can eventually enter our food chain.
A study published Thursday in the journal Scientific Reports quantified the total extent of the so-called garbage patch: it is four to 16 times larger than previously thought, occupying an area roughly four times the size of California and comprising an estimated 1.8 trillion pieces of junk. While the patch was thought to be more like a soup of nearly invisible microplastics, scientists now think that most of the garbage consists of larger pieces. And, they say, it is growing "exponentially."
"It's quite alarming, because you are so far from the mainland," said Laurent Lebreton, lead author of the study and an oceanographer for the Ocean Cleanup Foundation, a nonprofit that is developing systems to remove ocean debris and which funded the study. "There is no one around and you still see those common objects, like boxes and bottles."
In late summer 2015, Mr. Lebreton and his colleagues measured the amount of plastic debris on the patch by dragging it with nets and flying overhead to take aerial photographs. Although they also found glass, rubber and wood, 99.9 percent of what the researchers removed from the ocean was plastic.
They also recovered a surprising number of abandoned plastic fishing nets, Mr. Lebreton said. These "ghost nets" constituted almost half of the total weight of the waste. (One explanation is the patch's proximity to the fishing grounds, and another is that the fishing gear is designed to be tough at sea and remains intact longer than other objects.)
"We found some unexpected objects," said Mr. "Among them were plastic toys, which I found very sad, as some of them may have come from the tsunami in Japan," he added, referring to the 2011 disaster that sent millions of tons of waste to the ocean.
The researchers also uncovered a Game Boy cover from the 1990s, construction helmets and a toilet seat, as well as a number of objects with Japanese and Chinese inscriptions. Other objects, Mr. Lebreton said, had "small fish bite marks."
Some sea turtles caught near the patch ate so much plastic that it made up about three-quarters of their diet, according to the foundation.
The concern is that, in a few decades, larger pieces of debris could break apart into microplastics, which are much more difficult to remove from the ocean. "It's like a time bomb," said Joost Dubois, spokesman for the Ocean Cleanup Foundation.
The foundation says it would be nearly impossible to remove the plastic already in the patch by traditional methods, such as nets tied to boats. Instead, the group has developed a mechanical system that floats through water and concentrates plastics in denser areas that can then be picked up by ships and brought to shore to be recycled.
The foundation plans to launch the first such system this summer from Alameda, California.
By Livia Albeck-Ripka, The New York Times Fellow.