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garbage patch

noun [countable]

a very large area of the sea where natural currents cause rubbish to collect

'How did so much trash get there? The islands are in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, one of several places on Earth where ocean gyres hoard plastic that drifts from rivers, shores, ships and other sources.'

Mother Nature Network 30th October 2014

Few can fail to be impressed by the Great Barrier Reef, the world's largest structure of living organisms which is so huge it can be seen from outer space. Sadly however, it has a counterpart which is allegedly also visible from space, though this has nothing to do with 'living' organisms, but everything to do with modern 'living'. I'm referring to what's now known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a huge collection of plastic debris in the North Pacific which scientists predict is likely to double in size during the next ten years.

the exact size of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is unknown, though some estimates suggest it's at least as big as the US state of Texas

The exact size of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is unknown, though some estimates suggest it's at least as big as the US state of Texas. Also sometimes known as the Pacific Trash Vortex, it spans waters from the west coast of the US to Japan, and is widely recognized as the largest plastic dump on earth. It's in fact one of a number of such garbage patches across the world, which appear where rotating currents, winds, and other sea features converge to accumulate marine debris.

Though the expression garbage patch might conjure up images of a floating landfill with miles upon miles of plastic bottles bobbing about on the water, these areas in fact usually contain very small bits of plastic, sometimes described as microplastics, which are produced as non-biodegradable objects such as plastic bags, bottles, cups, etc are broken down. These bits of plastic are suspended in the water, a little like herb flecks floating within a bowl of soup, but they are no less hazardous than the plastic objects they come from. In the early 2000s, scientists estimated that for every pound of plankton in the Pacific Garbage Patch, there were six pounds of microplastic pieces. These microplastics are often consumed by fish and birds, with obvious harmful consequences. Another significant problem is debris from sea-based activities, such as tonnes upon tonnes of fishing nets which entangle whales, dolphins, seals and turtles. It is however land-based consumption of plastics which is thought to cause 80 per cent of the debris found in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

Background – garbage patch

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch was first discovered in the late 1990s by oceanographer Charles J Moore, who on returning to southern California after a sailing race, saw an enormous stretch of floating debris, despite being hundreds of miles from land. Although Moore is known for drawing attention to this phenomenon, the expression garbage patch was in fact the coinage of one of his oceanographer colleagues, Curtis Ebbesmeyer. The phrase caught on and is now used as a generic reference to any extensive area of marine debris.

A related expression also dating back to the 1990s is white pollution, which refers to rubbish heaps consisting primarily of plastic bags, but also paper, plastic cups, and other plastic containers. At the other end of the consumer spectrum there's also the expression e-waste (or electronic waste) which is used to describe accumulations of disposed mobile phones, computers, televisions, etc.

by Kerry Maxwell, author of Brave New Words

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This article was first published on 13th January 2015.

Open Dictionary


a form of location that involves the underwater detonation of a bomb which causes sound waves that are picked up by ships

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