National Geographic News
Photo of a plastic bag floating in the sea.

A plastic bag floats underwater at Pulau Bunaken, Indonesia; marine life ingests such debris, with catastrophic consequences.

Photograph by Paul Kennedy, Getty

Laura Parker

National Geographic

Published April 4, 2014

Before Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 went missing, sea trash was not a global headliner.

But as hundreds of objects sighted off the Australian coast as possible aircraft debris turn out to be discarded fishing equipment, cargo container parts, or plastic shopping bags, a new narrative is emerging in the hunt for the missing plane: There's more garbage out there than you think. Most of it is plastic. And marine life ingests it, with catastrophic consequences.

"This is the first time the whole world is watching, and so it's a good time for people to understand that our oceans are garbage dumps," says Kathleen Dohan, a scientist at Earth and Space Research in Seattle, Washington, who maps ocean surface currents. "This is a problem in every ocean basin."

Dohan plotted the movement of debris in a time-lapse video that shows where objects dropped into the ocean will end up in ten years. The objects migrate to regions known as garbage patches. The Pacific and Atlantic Oceans have two patches each, north and south. The Indian Ocean's garbage patch is centered roughly halfway between Africa and Australia.

The term "patch" suggests this floating detritus is packed together in an oceanic version of a landfill. Instead, these "patches" are actually huge zones where debris accumulates but floats free, circulating continuously. So it's possible for sailing ships and other small boats to inadvertently sail into a garbage patch region and encounter rubbish.

Great Pacific Garbage Patch the Largest

That was the case in last summer's Transpacific Yacht Race from Los Angeles, California, to Honolulu, Hawaii, when logs, telephone poles, and other wood debris from the 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami drifted into the Texas-size Great Pacific Garbage Patch halfway between Hawaii and California.

"There were a dozen or more reports about collisions, and some of the boats were damaged by this floating wood," says Nikolai Maximenko, an oceanographer at the International Pacific Research Center at the University of Hawaii in Honolulu, who has been studying the earthquake debris' drift across the Pacific.

Maximenko estimates that 100,000 to one million large wood objects, including timber and beams from houses, are still floating in the area.

"There is an analogy between that and the Malaysian plane," he says. "In both cases, we were not able to find anything identifiable on satellite images. We do not have an observation system to track individual objects. This system needs to be built."

Although the formation of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch was predicted in the 1970s by scientists from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, it wasn't documented until 1999 by a sailor named Charles Moore, who competed in the Transpacific race.

Plastics Ingested by Birds, Turtles, Whales

About 90 percent of the debris in all five garbage patches is plastic, says Marcus Eriksen, a marine scientist and founder of the 5 Gyres Institute, which works to reduce pollution from disposable plastics. "This is relatively new if you think about plastic. Only since the 1950s [have] consumers [used] plastics. Now, a half-century later, we are seeing an abundant accumulation of microplastics from all single-use, throwaway plastics like bags, bottles, bottle caps, kitchen utensils. I have pulled cigarette lighters from hundreds of bird skeletons."

He says sea turtles and California gray whales are also big unintentional consumers of plastic.

"You can see fish bites, so gradually, the plastic breaks into smaller and smaller pieces," says Maximenko. "After it reaches certain sizes, it can be ingested and then it quickly disappears."

The highest concentration of plastics can be found in the North Atlantic garbage patch, which receives most of its content from the United States, Canada, Mexico, and Europe.

Indian Ocean Garbage Patch a Mystery

Because of its remoteness, the Indian Ocean garbage patch remains more of a mystery. It was discovered in 2010 by Eriksen and his crew, who sailed west from Perth, Australia, toward Africa to document it. Eriksen says it comprises a massive area, at least two million square miles (about five million square kilometers) in size, but with no clear boundaries.

"It's very fluid and changes with the season," Eriksen says. "You could drag nets in one spot and come back the next day and it's different."

It also has gaps near Indonesia with very little debris. Maximenko theorizes that much of the marine debris generated by the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami has been salvaged by people living along the Indonesian coastline.

The contents of the garbage patch circulate constantly, riding the current known as the Indian Ocean gyre from the Australian side to the African side, down the African coast and back to Australia, Eriksen says. The full rotation takes about six years, unless the debris gets stuck in the center of the patch, where it could remain indefinitely.

If the Malaysian Boeing 777 crashed into the zone off the west coast of Australia where searchers are now looking, and if some of that debris remains undiscovered, it is already on its journey west toward Madagascar to join the rest of the junk in the Indian Ocean garbage patch, arriving in about a year.

119 comments
David Davis
David Davis

Merchant Ships and all military ships use the ocean as a  dumpster.....

brenda Hammer
brenda Hammer

The first 40 yrs of my life was spent by the ocean off N.Carolina and Florida Keys and the amount of plastic bags and Styrofoam coolers and those plastic things that hold six packs together is unbelievable. I can,t imagine the amount from the whole country. People take the boat out for the day and they think it,s OK because no one can see them, so they throw everything over.  Disgusting. They just don,t care. They don,t want their cute little boat cluttered with a trash bag to hold their trash, theyed rather toss it over. I saw it all the time.

Rachael Benson
Rachael Benson

I wish that after watching the above video once, thereafter would be no advertisements when viewing video again. The ads are longer than the video! The video contains important and interesting information, and the video moves quite fast, prompting one to want to view it a few more times to absorb the information in it's totality. Sitting through the long ads, accidentally clicking and getting redirected to the advertisers' pages - annoying and stops the message and information from being spread as effectively as it could be otherwise. 

I support NG.com, and understand the need for revenue, etc... Here, however, one ad would have been enough, with perhaps static advertisements around the edges of the video screen or some such measure. 

If it was set up differently, I would be sharing this video on all my social networks right now, rather than writing this note. 

Cheers! Rachael 


J Browne
J Browne

Let's stop and think about where plastic comes from in the first place. Then maybe we'll see what it is we're up against when we talk about not using plastic bottles, bags, food containers, and all kinds of plastic stuff.  It comes from oil.  Plastic is and always has been a petroleum by-product.  After years of refining petroleum and producing sludge, which the oil companies simply piled up on the banks of rivers and near coastal areas where the refineries are located, they were told that it was causing massive fish-kills and harming the quality of life of humans who resided near the area. Essentially they had to find something to do with the sludge. So the good people at places like duPont and Hercules started to task their scientists to come up with a fiber made from this sludge which could be treated, colored, spun, dyed and/or molded.  Initially they came up with combs and brushes, all made by du Pont, they called it nylon.  It was not as rigid as coal-based residue and hard breakable plastics of the late 1940's.  Eventually they spun it into polyester for "clothing" which they sold to an anxious public in the late 1960's and early 70's. It was cheap, bright, resisted fading and sold like hotcakes. How many disco shirts do you remember?  And polyester douleknits? But it felt you were wearing saran wrap. It didn't breathe. So we went back to natural fibers. And the plastics went into making grocery bags, plastic bottles, glass seemed to disappear overnight. Recycling milk bottles and soda bottles completely disappeared. Why do you think that is?  Because the petroleum lobby is massive. Our planet runs on petro-dollars. It's what makes the world go around. What big-oil wants, big-oil gets. And they don't care at all about polluting the oceans. They are climate deniers because it's bad for business to believe.  

It IS up to us to push back. One by one, bottle by bottle. Reuse, recycle. Buy glass when you can. Use paper and recycle. Tap water isn't healthy in every city, even these days. But we can recycle and repurpose those plastic bottles and make sure they don't wind up in our oceans. But put the blame where it belongs.... on the petroleum industry for giving us very few choices but to use their gas and oil leftovers turned into plastic.

Justina Richterova
Justina Richterova

This is just sad... Please people wake up and start appreciating our natural habitat! It is too precious to mistreat it like this.

Keku Writer
Keku Writer

National Geographic should rename as Planet Geographic. The time has come.

Keku Writer
Keku Writer

THE tragedy of Earth is man....and the keeper of Earth is man too....Keeper has to be cleaner too....man is just learning he has to clean up after him.....excessive praying is a sign of laziness.

Jacky Ahasm
Jacky Ahasm


    Today I read the article “Plane Search Shows World Ocean are Full Of Trash” and my opinion this is disgusting. The birds are eating lighters also the ocean are full of trash and the marine life is dead cause of the pollution this is why it needs to be fixed.

James Gross
James Gross

 Today I read the article, "World's Oceans are Full of Trash". I think this is horrible. The bird ate all of the trash. Fishes died because of trash. I think this needs to be fixed.

Dan Ericson
Dan Ericson

Less than a second to see your moving letters to type to send this email.  I can't print without everybody's comments and 18 pages I don't need to share at the office yet this article I do.  National Geo. sure could get a lot more exposure if you made these things printable without a lot of wasted paper and ink.  Probably up your readership, subscriptions, income and intelligence worldwide but I'm sure you have your reasons.  Or do you?

Susan Martin
Susan Martin

In 1988 I cooked on a crab boat in Alaska. We had a trash compactor (We called it "TrashMonster because it would come out of the wall and chase me all over the Galley and one time it pinned me in the 'head" (bathroom) When it came time for me to empty the garbage I asked where I was to put it and I was told, "Just throw it over board."   I was horrified and pissed and refused to do it...well, after about one week, the garbage was collecting all over the boat and I was running out of places to stash it...I finally had to concede and toss it all over board. Multiply that by all of the boats in the Bering Sea and you can imagine how much trash we added to the mix.  24 years later I am still trying to make up for what I did. What is ironic is that we were fishing for Crab and Halibut..both are bottom feeders...so you can imagine what they were eating..and then we catch and eat them...KARMA BABY!!!

Susan Martin
Susan Martin

The use of plastic water bottles is pandemic...I see so many people walking around with a cell phone in one hand and a plastic bottle of water in the other. I have taken it upon myself to approach people and ask them if they have ever considered drinking their tap water and if they say "Yes I have" then i ask them why they are drinking bottled water. I may make some people mad but I don't care. I just want to plant that seed in people's minds so they are more aware of what they are doing. Our oceans are filled with plastic and water bottles is at the top of the list...Please...think about what you buy. If possible, purchase things in glass or reusable containers. NO MORE PLASTIC. If you can, find a drink mix and reuse plastic bottles instead of buying more. I am guilty of putting tons of plastic into our world by using Vitamin Water. I am going to contact the company's President and ask them why they don't make a drink mix so we an stop using so many bottles. I encourage and challenge everyone to make a difference today. Don't buy products that come in plastic. Don't use the plastic bags in the produce section, instead bring your own cloth veggie bags. It helps..if we just stopped using one product contained in plastic it would make a huge difference. Don't say you won't make a difference...remember the story about he man walking down teh beach throwing the star fish back into the ocean that had been brought up by the tide. His friend said, "What are you doing?" and he said, 'I am saving the star fish from extinction." His friend said, 'You are only one person, you can't make a difference for all the star fish".. the man leaned over and picked up a star fish and tossed him back into the ocean, 'I made a difference for that one didn't I?"...MAKE A DIFFERENCE

Miguel C.
Miguel C.

I'm surprised that in 50 years we haven't really found an economically viable way to reduce, recycle and reutilize plastics and their derivatives. 

I understand that recycling plastic is complex because of the apparently infinite variations on the basic formula, engineered to give the finished products certain characteristics (resistance to heat, cold, breakage, etc.), and that the recycling methods currently available require a lot more resources (energy, time, money) than it takes to produce new plastics from raw materials, but then we have a couple of events in the not-so-far future that could bring a boost to this kind of research: the gradual diminishing of oil reserves worldwide, which will increase the cost of the raw materials needed to create plastics, and the accumulation of discarded plastics everywhere, which will form large deposits of potentially valuable raw materials if we ever develop an economically viable way to break plastic molecules and reutilize them. 

I hope one day somebody will develop this economically viable, large-scale recycling procedure. Then we could begin talking about private enterprises starting "mining" old plastics from landfills and oceanic garbage patches for a profit. If, and when that happens, these garbage dumps will become a new source of wealth and raw materials, which could be very important in a world where oil is scarce and needed for other applications (energy, medicine, agriculture, etc.) The moment we start seeing an intrinsic value in our trash, we'll start treating it differently, and perhaps one day, a hundred years from now, these giant garbage patches will be just another long-forgotten event from the past.


Syed Nasir
Syed Nasir

since my childhood all i have heard is to stop plastic bags. i am now in university and still hearing but the sad part is i haven't seen any implementation. we should all make effort and stop accepting plastic bags.. all have cars use that to put goods or make your  self a cloth bag. 

jeanne Fouché
jeanne Fouché

We are all responsible for the garbage in the ocean.  Stricter rules should be enforced especially for all ships or any ocean going vessels on how they get rid of there rubbish

Arnaud Pecquerie
Arnaud Pecquerie

I'm curious to see which answer we will bring: buil new satellite to differentiate type of debris or clean sea and limit garbage throw away in nature?

Ying Bri
Ying Bri

One day when the human race has to return back to the water then and only then will they clean it up!

Ryan Willard
Ryan Willard

"World's Oceans Are Full of Trash", you don't say

Saurab Babu
Saurab Babu

unawareness and a careless attitude is the root cause for this...every human needs to become more concerned about the environment and a little less concerned about luxuries and hardcore development.

Chris Day
Chris Day

One day, when humans cease to exist, the earth will make right what we have made wrong. 

Deleana Marie Ellis
Deleana Marie Ellis

we are all guilty of the trash in our oceans , so we should all do our part and help clean it up, not just one person but all of us.

Adamo Curry
Adamo Curry

This is what ive been telling everyone and yeah over population of the human race would be top of the problem pyramid.

Ronald Alan
Ronald Alan

Come here in the Philippines and you will see tons of garbage indiscriminately being dumped into the sea, creeks and rivers by so many stupid people.

curt bovee
curt bovee

Perhaps after the gyres float up on groomed beaches on Nantucket, the Hamptons. Hilton Head and Ft. Lauderdale, the 1%'ers may scream bloody murder and push for resolutions.

Christine Miller
Christine Miller

Who can pay for it?  The World Bank can pay for it, instead of funding deforestation and other environmental disasters.  The money is there, we the people need to push for it to be done.  And we need to outlaw single use plastic bags everywhere, and use our power as consumers to encourage less wasteful packaging.  Plastic is a nightmare, at every stage, from it's creation to it's disposal.  Don't take it or buy it if you can't recycle it!  And next time you go for a walk at the beach or in your neighborhood, pick up the plastic trash that you see on the ground.

Patrick Conners
Patrick Conners

I remember my first trip to the Dominican Republic. As we were driving from the airport into the city of Santo Domingo I was constantly looking at the ocean and how beautifully blue it was. It was a sunny day and I thought the first chance I get I am going to walk along the rocky coastline that appears as you drive into the city. The next day I did just that and what a disappointment it was to see up close the complete shoreline for miles filled with garbage, mostly plastic. It was such a disappointment to see the beautiful Caribbean coastline filled with plastic garbage. At least it all seemed to be in one large patch and floating so there should be ways to vacuum it up. But who is going to pay for that?

Patrick Conners
Patrick Conners

I remember my first trip to the Dominican Republic. As we were driving from the airport into the city of Santo Domingo I was constantly looking at the ocean and how beautifully blue it was. It was a sunny day and I thought the first chance I get I am going to walk along the rocky coastline that appears as you drive into the city. The next day I did just that and what a disappointment it was to see up close the complete shoreline for miles filled with garbage, mostly plastic. It was such a disappointment to see the beautiful Caribbean coastline filled with plastic garbage. At least it all seemed to be in one large patch and floating so there should be ways to vacuum it up. But who is going to pay for that?

Alexandra Collins
Alexandra Collins

Consumerism is largely apart of this. And Americans businesses and corporations that push people (consumers) to buy into it. That way of life has taken over for far too many. I really do think a lot of people forget that they inhabit planet Earth, and not some "funland shopping mall" at their dispense.

Tanya Sharpe
Tanya Sharpe

I Think this should be made aware and dealt with now before it gets way worse, create new jobs by creating a crew that can grab this debris and recycle, reuse and dispose of properly, and get these floating garbage beds cleaned up to the best we can. I also wish we could handle lighters and razor blades in an according manor. This was also recognized on the show life after people, all I can do is be as environmentally respon

sible and do my part and hope the word is spread for more people to do the same and keep this earth beautiful for the generations to come, that is a big wish....but I wish it!!!!

Tyyne Andrews
Tyyne Andrews

Our overuse and reckless attitude toward the Earth must change and we have the power to do this, one individual at a time, making small changes and large. 

Unknown to many, many people, a New Revelation is being given to the world that specifically addresses these most basic worldly problems and needs and provides a spiritual solution to the long-range issues we are facing.... immediate and long-range problems will be a shock that will hit many by surprise. There is a new way forward. Click here to delve into the deeper solution...

http://www.newmessage.org/the-shock-of-the-future

Arlene Nason
Arlene Nason

Can't they design a ship that can vacuum up these big areas of trash?  

tina zhang
tina zhang

it is very tough to deal with because it cover massive area of the ocean. i think what we should do is to be green, to improve our circulation  system.

Harold Lema
Harold Lema

how come ships, cargo vessels, cruise liners, etc. are throwing their trash overboard? I know several seamen and they admitted that this is normal! WHY WHY WHY!!!?!?!?

Rodolfo Alonzo
Rodolfo Alonzo

I read about plastic/trash in the Oceans in a National Geographic issue a decade ago and switched from plastic to cloth bags. Those plastic bags are poison to our environment. Plastic recycling companies do not want them. Plastic or polyvinyl chloride is a known cancer causing agent. If you drink only plastic water bottles etc, etc, they are poison to our World. They get discarded and float their way down stream. Unbelievably all the way to the Ocean. The plastic gets ground up smaller then the birds mistake it for food. A decade ago the odds of a coastal bird finding real food amongst all the colorful trash was 1 in 47. The birds die you, open one up and he died from a belly full of plastic. Another thing I really notice is at any store most clerks want to put your products you buy in a plastic bag. You could buy a pack of gum and a newspaper. Most clerks will give you a plastic bag. I recycle. If everyone did, and we made a good effort at curbing are bad habits. Such as throwing cigarette butts, your fast food order you ate while on the road, or any other trash items out your car window. That would be a good start.

Kristi D.
Kristi D.

Yet every nation will continue to dump toxic garbage in the ocean. Humans are a terrible species. The earth would be better off without us.

Erin Greenhill
Erin Greenhill

@Susan Martin What's even worse than all the plastic water bottles -- all the crap North Americans buy at the dollar stores... and it's awful on ALL kinds of sides, the plastic needed for supples to make plastic and the pollution created in the manufacture of all the plastic "stuff" to begin with, then the plastic and pollution generated in order to ship that plastic stuff out of China, then there is all the plastic packaging ON all the dollar store crap (PLUS all the *other* crap North Americans buy), then MORE plastic to put all the crap we buy into to get it home... then even MORE plastic to put the crap in when it breaks or is no longer needed to send it to the landfill. That is a lot of plastic!

Good grief, no wonder there is all this stuff! It is killing me to see all these articles today. What you commented earluer about trash & the crab boats... imagine what a cruise ship generates & dumps! Or those ships that  bring all the dollar store crap around the world from China.

That should give a bit of pause to everyone the next time we wander in to a dollar store...

Jan Cleghorn
Jan Cleghorn

@Susan Martin  I couldn't agree more Susan. This situation appalls me and nothing seems to be being done about it. I for one, am trying to cut down on plastic wherever possible. But  SOOOO much comes in it!!!

N A
N A

@Susan Martin Plastic bottles aren't the problem. Throwing them haphazardly into landfills and oceans is the problem. Let's at least hunt the right witches.

Alexander Moulton
Alexander Moulton

@Arnaud Pecquerie  A new satellite? Satellites lead to a similar problem. Once their fuel source runs out they become part of the ever increasing garbage ring that is collecting in orbit around Earth.

I'd be interested to see whether we could use technology to create a method to speed up the breakdown or these materials. They all came from the earth. There must be a way to put it back

N A
N A

@Chris Day Gosh, Humans just can't do anything right, can they? How about we stop vilifying humanity and instead work on problem resolution?

Alexandra Collins
Alexandra Collins

@Seth Forbis @Kristi D.  Really? if I saw this conversation in real life i would definitely agree with Kristi and want to look at you with disgust. You probably already know this, but this is a huge issue that is overlooked by A LOT of people. The future of Earth would be better without ATTITUDES like yours. Not without YOU. it saddens me a lot to see someone make a comment like yours, you must surpress the negativity that humans create and perpetuate onto Earth. 


Sadly Krisit, I think most Americans would reject to acclimate to a new and better way of life for Earth and it's non human species. It's too "depressing" and not "fun" enough to put out more effort that is not fathomable four ourselves. : ( Which is what is really depressing, and which is why I take total offence to anyone's comments like the one Seth just made. :/

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