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If one were to travel far enough in the Pacific Ocean, one might eventually end up in what is commonly referred to as the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch“. Scientifically, the area is known as the North Pacific Gyre, a swirling vortex of under-ocean currents that come together and keep the ocean water from going anywhere but there.

Because of the vortex created by the ocean currents, the area has accumulated an astonishing amount of trash (garbage, rubbish…whatever you want to call it). So powerful is this phenomenon that oceanographers are saying that the area is nearly twice as large as the continental United States.

A dead sea bird with plastics in its stomach

Most of the trash in this floating island of debris is plastic-based, which means that it is not biodegradable. Instead, it simply breaks into pieces and creates smaller plastic pieces which then wreak havoc on the environment and the animals in the area. The plastics are incredibly hazardous to the marine life, most of the time so dangerous that ingesting it means death (either as a direct result or as an indirect result via the natural food chain).

Plastic in the ocean can lead to deformities in marine life.

Here’s the low-down on the island of trash in the sea, from SFGate:

The enormous stew of trash – which consists of 80 percent plastics and weighs some 3.5 million tons, say oceanographers – floats where few people ever travel, in a no-man’s land between San Francisco and Hawaii.

Ocean current patterns may keep the flotsam stashed in a part of the world few will ever see, but the majority of its content is generated onshore, according to a report from Greenpeace last year titled “Plastic Debris in the World’s Oceans.”

The report found that 80 percent of the oceans’ litter originated on land. While ships drop the occasional load of shoes or hockey gloves into the waters (sometimes on purpose and illegally), the vast majority of sea garbage begins its journey as onshore trash.

The Independent continues:

Marcus Eriksen, a research director of the US-based Algalita Marine Research Foundation, which Mr Moore founded, said yesterday: “The original idea that people had was that it was an island of plastic garbage that you could almost walk on. It is not quite like that. It is almost like a plastic soup. It is endless for an area that is maybe twice the size as continental United States.”

The “soup” is actually two linked areas, either side of the islands of Hawaii, known as the Western and Eastern Pacific Garbage Patches. About one-fifth of the junk – which includes everything from footballs and kayaks to Lego blocks and carrier bags – is thrown off ships or oil platforms. The rest comes from land.

In addition to posing an environmental risk, the area is also a big concern because of health risks that it poses for humans living on land. Chemicals from the plastics can get into our water, our food, and into our systems.

Here’s a report from the Today show about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.