That plastic bag that got away — do you wonder what happened to it? Or the plastic bottle you forgot to recycle? Chances are they are now in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, also known as the Pacific trash vortex.

This soup of plastic garbage is the world’s largest rubbish dump. It extends from off the California coast, across the northern Pacific almost to Japan. It is twice the size of Texas, and some say it’s much bigger. It is ever moving, like a conveyor belt powered by the ocean currents called the North Pacific Gyre.

This trash vortex harms marine life. Turtles mistake plastic bags for jellyfish, and seabirds mistake plastic pieces for fish. Many die.


The vortex occurs because plastics take a long time to break down. Eventually, the plastics get ground up or degraded by sunlight into smaller and smaller pieces called nurdles. These nurdles contain and attract harmful substances such as hydrocarbons and DDT, and they end up in the food chain.

Jellyfish or fish eat these small floating pieces, mistaking them for plankton or fish eggs. Then larger fish consume these fish, and so on. And we like to eat the larger fish such as tuna — no wonder they are full of toxins.

What can you do? Reduce your use of disposable plastics. And if you do use some, make sure to recycle. To protect yourself from toxins, eat small fish low in the food chain, like sardines and herrings.

Kai Chan is an assistant professor and Canada Research Chair at the Institute for Resources, Environment, and Sustainability (IRES) at UBC. He’s a transdisciplinary environmental researcher, integrating ethics and social and natural sciences. Carrie West is the communications co-ordinator for the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, B.C. chapter.

Dumping ground

  • Plastic constitutes approximately 90 per cent of all rubbish floating in the oceans.

  • 100 million tons of flotsam are circulating in the North Pacific trash vortex. There are similar areas in other oceans.

  • Plastic debris causes the deaths of more than one million seabirds every year, and more than 100,000 marine mammals.

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