What Should I Know About Earth’s Floating Islands of Garbage?

Updated on January 14, 2020
Kosmo profile image

Environmental issues are a major interest of Kelley's, especially pollution, climate change, deforestation and endangered species.

Must We Fill Every Ocean on the Planet With Plastic?

Contrary to popular belief, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch can’t be seen from space, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a big freaking mess. Roughly located between California and the Hawaiian Islands, this floating layer of refuse has been called “Gilligan’s Island,” because it’s like that inane sitcom from the 1960s that simply won’t go away.

Comprised mostly of plastic, say about 80 per cent, Gilligan’s Island is more than twice the size of the state of Texas, over 30 feet deep and weighs over 80,000 tons. It’s been growing tenfold every decade since 1950 and isn’t going away unless someone removes it. There are other floating garbage patches too and they won’t simply disappear either.

Let’s study these floating islands of garbage and see what can be done to either greatly reduce them in size or eliminate them.

Plastic waste in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch
Plastic waste in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch

The Basics of Oceanic Garbage Patches

The earth has five major gyres and the North Pacific Gyre helped bring about the creation what has been called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP). Gyres are produced by the earth’s various currents, which move in either a clockwise or counterclockwise fashion, in the process creating a central area where the water, relatively calm, draws in matter from the outside. In subtropical zones, this central area is called the doldrums or horse latitudes. (In the days of sailing ships, Spanish sailors would lighten their ships and/or preserve water by throwing overboard their horses, hence the name.)

The existence of the GPGP was predicted in the late 1980s and identified when oceanographer Charles J. Moore rode a boat through the area in 1997. In an essay for Natural History magazine, Moore wrote:

I was confronted, as far as the eye could see, with the sight of plastic. It seemed unbelievable, but I never found a clear spot. In the week it took to cross the subtropical high, no matter what time of day I looked, plastic debris was floating everywhere: bottles, bottle caps, wrappers, fragments.

According to a study made by Moore in 1999, there is six times more plastic in the GPGP than zooplankton, tiny animals at the bottom of the ocean’s food chain. The waters off California have shown similar plastic pollution. Back then, these numbers shocked many oceanographers.

Effects of Pollution on Humans

Yes, indeed, something fishy is going on, because the earth’s marine creatures are ingesting plastic at an alarming rate. And, of course, once fish eat plastic, the plastic either passes to the other marine creatures eating them or to people at the top of the food chain. Many marine creatures die after consuming plastic too, as their digestive tracts can’t digest plastic and large chunks of plastic can also cause lethal blockages.

As plastic degrades in the water, succumbing to a process known as photodegradation, it breaks into smaller and smaller pieces. This disintegration releases toxic chemicals into the environment. These chemicals include Bisphenol A, PCBs and derivatives of polystyrene, all of which either are or can be harmful to humans. Moreover, all floating debris can absorb pollutants from water, endangering animals and people as it continues floating about.

Caribbean garbage patch
Caribbean garbage patch
Plastic debris on Cocos Islands
Plastic debris on Cocos Islands

Floating Garbage Patches around the World

According to the article “Pacific Plastic Trash Island” on the website for The Chic Ecologist, there are actually two trash islands in the Pacific Ocean, one west of California and the other east of Japan. These floating islands aren’t easily seen from the air or satellite images because the trash is suspended in water below the surface, prompting some people to claim they don’t exist.

To reduce the size of these trash islands, the website recommends eliminating the use of disposable plastic bottles and bags, replacing them with reusable metal or canvas containers. As for the trash that’s already out there, it suggests using floating recycling plants so the plastic could be recycled, or simply recover the trash and use it to create a “utopian island.”

North Atlantic Garbage Patch

The Atlantic Ocean has it own garbage patch as well. Located within the North Atlantic Gyre, this layer of debris, much of it plastic, was first documented in 1972. Roughly equivalent to the size of the Sargasso Sea, a becalmed area of the ocean created by the aforementioned gyre, this patch is estimated to be hundreds of square kilometers in size and may contain as much as 200,000 pieces of debris per square kilometer.

As this area is the approximate location of the so-called Bermuda Triangle, scene of many marine and aerial disasters throughout history, perhaps this is nature’s way of getting even with people for dumping trash that ends up in the Triangle!

Trash Island in the Caribbean Sea

According to an article by the Independent on looptt.com on 11/4/17, a huge floating mass of garbage, mostly plastic, has been found by divers off the coast of Honduras, and its heading toward the Cayos Cochinos Marine Reserve. Ironically, the divers were searching for pristine dive sites when they made the find. The article said the trash was coming from the Motagua River in Guatemala, the source of much pollution in recent years.

Interestingly, by some estimates there may be more plastic than fish in the oceans by the year 2050!

Indian Ocean Garbage Patch

Discovered in 2010, the Indian Ocean Garbage Patch (IOGP) is not quite as obvious as other oceanic garbage patches because it doesn’t consist of one immense floating mass of plastic and other debris. Nevertheless, it is there and can be measured to some extent. The concentration of plastics in the IOGP has been estimated to be about 10,000 particles per kilometer.

Tube used by The Ocean Cleanup
Tube used by The Ocean Cleanup

How Bad Is the Problem?

Per the article, “Ten Million Tons of Trash Floating in the Pacific,” written by Frosty Wooldridge, found on the website for Independent News, every hour humans toss 2.5 million pieces of plastic into the oceans; and 46,000 pieces of plastic float on every square mile of ocean! Wooldridge also goes on to write that many of our beaches are heavily littered with pieces of plastic. Even beaches of the remote Galapagos Islands suffer from plastic pollution.

Moreover, plastic gill nets and monofilament lines wreak havoc on water dwelling animals, essentially strangling them to death. It appears parts of the world are becoming a plasticized refuse dump toxic to most living things.

In fact, the problem of oceanic plastic may be considerably worse than previously thought. As stated in an article on MSN.com titled “Scientists find 416 million pieces of plastic debris on remote islands,” dated 5/21/19, what we see piled on islands may only be the tip of proverbial iceberg. A survey of the Cocos (Keeling) Islands in the eastern Indian Ocean shows that over 400 million pieces of plastic litter the islands, most of it buried under the sand and therefore not easily seen or counted. The survey estimated that the 27 islands of the archipelago are covered with 262 tons of plastic.

A recent worldwide estimate is even more alarming: 5.25 trillion plastic items are now in the earth’s oceans, more than all the stars in the Milky Way. And the amount of plastic the world is using has increased dramatically over the last 10 years.

Even if we got our hands on this plastic pollution, what could we do with it?

Since plastic is not biodegradable, burying it in a landfill works fine as long as water doesn’t get into the plastic and cause the chemicals in it to leach into the environment. Plastic can be burned too, but the resultant smoke isn’t healthy to breathe.

Is Recycling the Answer?

Wooldridge suggests that a solution to the problem would be to create a 10 to 20 cent deposit on all plastic containers sold anywhere in the world. This would create an economic incentive to return the plastic to recycling facilities rather than dump it into landfills and also make it profitable to collect what’s already floating around in the world.

Please keep in mind that the state of California already offers a deposit return on all plastic bottles. For instance, number one plastic (or clear plastic), can have a refund value of as much as one dollar per pound. But most states don’t offer refund value on plastic containers; that is, they haven’t passed “bottle bills” as California, Oregon and other states have done. (One reason states haven’t passed a bottle bill is because this deposit adds cost to the items.)

Clearly, if all states passed bottle bills, this would almost certainly help limit the expansion of floating garbage patches in the world’s oceans.

Will the Great Pacific Garbage Patch Soon be Removed?

According to an article on the website Sanfrancisco.cbslocal.com, dated 4/18/18, a San Francisco Bay Area nonprofit organization named The Ocean Cleanup plans to test a device comprising dozens of connected floating tubes, as well as nylon screens, all of which designed to trap large amounts of floating plastic junk in the GPGP. The goal of the organization is to collect the plastic and other floating debris and ship it to recycling plants and landfills. They hope to begin the project in 2020.

Even though the organization seems to have millions of dollars in funding, this project could take a long time to complete. Even if this device works, it could reportedly take five years to remove about half of the GPGP. But how long will it take to clean up other floating garbage patches in the world? That question will have to be answered at a later date.


The size of the GPGP and other floating garbage patches is debatable, because we haven’t established parameters for identifying and measuring them. All we know for certain is they’re out there and growing bigger by the minute, and they aren’t going anywhere unless somebody sucks up the trash and moves it to landfills and/or recycles it.

What average citizens can do about the problem is make sure they dump all their plastic waste into trash cans, assuming the contents of which are eventually dumped into public landfills. At least this will keep the plastic out of waterways and eventually the oceans. Recycling plastic can also help reduce the problem as well. So if you aren’t recycling plastic, please start doing so right away.

Of course, the garbage in the oceans right now will eventually have to be removed, and governments will have to get involved in this process, because the removal process will be very expensive. Then again, private enterprise may find a way of making money from its removal. At any rate, vote for legislators and candidates who advocate cleaning up the earth’s floating garbage patches and recycling all manner of plastic waste.

Let’s hope Gilligan’s Island will eventually disappear forever!

© 2012 Kelley Marks


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    • profile image

      Kosmo Kelley 

      2 years ago

      Thanks for commenting, Monica. You have a lot to write about the garbage-ridden state of our poor planet earth. Perhaps if enough people share your fervor for cleaning up the oceans, they will be returned to their original pristine condition some time soon.

    • AutumnReign profile image


      2 years ago

      Good points raised. And the plastic is just a small fraction of the garbage we have been dumping into our oceans. Toxic waste by the barrel-fulls is down on the sea floors, just waiting for the right conditions to set them free. The oceans of the world are literally our 'toilets' for waste disposal and, God only knows what secrets are being masked by salt water!

    • stelaligizaki profile image

      Stella Aligizaki 

      2 years ago from Greece

      Very nice article and photos that show the nasty truth about sea pollution.

    • Kosmo profile imageAUTHOR

      Kelley Marks 

      3 years ago from California

      Thanks for the insightful response, Stella Kaye! You're right about the problem with plastic - less of it needs to be produced and much more of it needs to be recycled. Those floating islands of garbage will need to be cleaned up too. I think some folks are starting to do that. Later!

    • Stella Kaye profile image

      Stella Kaye 

      3 years ago from UK

      A good article which highlights the problem. I feel the only adequate way to deal with plastic pollution is to tackle it at source by reducing the amount of plastic produced or even better by persuading plastic producers to come up with a safe alternative. Recycling is never going to be an adequate solution as it is hugely disproportional to the amount of plastic being produced - the world produces 300 million tons a year and as little as 15% of that is currently recycled.

    • profile image

      Jeff in CA 

      5 years ago

      Is anyone working on a system to collect, condense and recycle Gilligan's Island (GPGP). I have a solid concept of such a system and would love input and collaboration to develop it. I intend to sign up for a Hub Account, in hope of using it for contact and discussion.

    • Kosmo profile imageAUTHOR

      Kelley Marks 

      8 years ago from California

      Thanks for the comment, vocalcoach. I think everyone should know about Gilligan's Island. Later!

    • vocalcoach profile image

      Audrey Hunt 

      8 years ago from Idyllwild Ca.

      An eye-opening article that should be read by everyone. I had no prior knowledge about Gilligans Island the this terrible problem. I agree with the idea of raising the cost of plastic bottling if only to bring an awareness to the public. Thank you so much. Voted up across and will share.

    • Kosmo profile imageAUTHOR

      Kelley Marks 

      8 years ago from California

      Hello, Lady Guinevere! Landfills must be monitored on a regular basis, looking for possible leakage of toxic chemicals or whatever. Hey, I'd rather have plastic in landfills than in the earth's various oceans, rivers or lakes. Later!

    • Lady Guinevere profile image

      Debra Allen 

      8 years ago from West By God

      If we dump it into landfills it will eventually surface.

    • Kosmo profile imageAUTHOR

      Kelley Marks 

      8 years ago from California

      Thanks for the comment, Lady Guinevere. I like your moniker! Anyway, I don't think floating plastic is a great home for sea creatures, though I'm certainly not an expert on such matters. I think this unsightly mess needs to be recycled or dumped into landfills. Later!

    • Lady Guinevere profile image

      Debra Allen 

      8 years ago from West By God

      Look at it from a different angle...These are homes to many species of fish and so forth. Are we just going to get rid of them in the process of thinking only about humans? Look at the new eco-systems that are developed when a ship lands on the bottom of the ocean. Great article though with many good points and lots of research. Voted it up.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      There has been talk of harvesting it as a resource in the way we capture and burn methane from landfills, but realistically... it's a mess.

    • Kosmo profile imageAUTHOR

      Kelley Marks 

      8 years ago from California

      Thanks for the comment, alloporus. One of these days, all that floating plastic needs to be cleaned up, don't you think? Later!

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Thanks Kosmo, this is a hugely important topic and this Hub explains it really well. The solutions are less easy to figure out.


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