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Maloney writes: "The Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP), a site of marine debris considered to be twice the size of Texas, is perhaps the foremost expression of the impact of plastic waste on our world and the role of humans in environmental degradation."

A Greenpeace campaigner collects plastic from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in 2018. (photo: Tabor Wordelman/Teen Vogue)
A Greenpeace campaigner collects plastic from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in 2018. (photo: Tabor Wordelman/Teen Vogue)

I Went to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. This Is What I Saw.

By Alli Maloney, Teen Vogue

07 January 19


he Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP), a site of marine debris considered to be twice the size of Texas, is perhaps the foremost expression of the impact of plastic waste on our world and the role of humans in environmental degradation.

The GPGP has been popularized through media coverage as the world turns its focus to plastic pollution, but misrepresented by misattributed photos that show matted, flat surface debris in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. It is incorrectly believed to be visible from space and described as the “world’s biggest landfill”; a so-called trash vortex where plastic is “piling up.”

But it’s not that simple. The GPGP is just one manifestation of the many ways man-made environmental destruction has taken phenomenal hold of our natural world. Its alleged dramatic aesthetics fail to fully address the impact of the waste — and the root of the global plastics problem. So, to understand the mythology behind the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and get to the bottom of what it really means for the planet, I went to see it for myself.

It takes over one thousand miles from shore to get to the GPGP. You depart from the West Coast and head straight into the Pacific. Land fades from sight and the world around the ship becomes only water and sky. I set out on the journey from Ensenada, Mexico with a photographer to bear witness as a guest of Greenpeace, the decades-old non-governmental environmental organization whose oceans campaign team conducted research from aboard their icebreaker, the Arctic Sunrise. The 21-day-long expedition at sea shed light on and debunked many prevalent ideas — mainly that the ocean, in any part, can be "cleaned up" from the mess humans have made.


We set off from Ensenada this past September and traveled directly toward the gyre, stopping only once for the engineers to make midnight repairs to the ship. Upon arrival, which took days, I expected to see trash everywhere, piled up as I heard it would be. Instead, what I saw was different, and certainly no island. As Greenpeacers described to me, and as I witnessed, the GPGP is more of a "soupy mixture," with its most buoyant pieces of large, tough plastic joined by fishing debris at the very top of the water's surface and countless microplastics immediately — indefinitely — below. There was no oversized plastic heap like I was expecting. There was no matted debris — just vast sea, a few seabirds, and a touch of marine life amid a noticeably high concentration of plastic waste.

It’s home to a severe problem and is a visible manifestation of “throwaway” culture — wherein much of our economy and daily lives rely on plastics, most of which are thrown out after one use — but it’s nothing like what we’ve been told.

The GPGP was discovered in 1997 by marine researcher Charles Moore and named by oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer. It became known as “Trash Isles,” thanks to a pair of advertisers who appealed to the United Nations to have the area become the world's 196th country on World Oceans Day in 2017. The campaign was marketed well, and public understanding of the GPGP was generally founded on the notion that an “island” of trash had been discovered. That misconception took off, installing the impression that the impact of plastic pollution would be visible to the eye.

The GPGP is in the largest and perhaps most well-known one of the world’s five ocean gyres, or systems of circulating ocean currents. It is one of three major “garbage patches” found within these gyres where, over time, plastic debris has coalesced. The GPGP is in the North Pacific Ocean between California and Hawaii, 1,200 nautical miles offshore, where very few have ventured to bear witness, so widespread misconceptions persist.

The mass of trash hits its peak in the center of the GPGP’s most concentrated area, which change all of the time based on current conditions. Ships can enter this area easily, but even in its outermost zones, floating plastic debris appeared with great frequency.

With the ship slowed down from its usual nine knots, the Greenpeace team spent an hour each day with a special trawl net lowered into the water. We’d sift the plastic pieces that were caught and picked them out of a tray and onto a gridded sheet to be counted and examined, one by one, using tweezers. (The process, which feels endless, was oddly satisfying.) Greenpeace then documented and packaged up the day’s tiny finds to be sent to partner scientists to study and ideally trace back to a particular product or brand. In one trawl — one hour of one day — they captured and cataloged 1,119 pieces.

To better visualize what that looks like below the surface, they also needed to send divers. Tavish Campbell was one of two aboard the Sunrise and tasked with filming underwater. Before the trip, like so many others, he’d seen “images in the media which made [the GPGP] look like a massive island you could walk on,” he tells Teen Vogue. “I had prepared myself to see vast tidelines of plastic floating on the surface, complete with entangled sea creatures, but what we actually found was a far different story.”

Instead, he encountered a seascape that he describes as “sinister”: a vast expanse of pristine-looking ocean found to be “awash in trillions of micro-fragments of plastic” below the water.

“Every time I ducked under the surface into the bottomless blue, I could see tiny pieces of plastic drifting around me, some smaller than sesame seeds and hardly identifiable, but always present,” Campbell says. “I have dove along shorelines thick with plastic garbage in the western Pacific and have witnessed the careless dumping of garbage closer to home in the eastern Pacific, but seeing the GPGP really linked it all together for me and offered a startling realization: There is no ‘away’ when something drifts away. It just heads toward the closest ocean gyre.”

The majority of the plastic in the ocean eventually sinks. What floats is at the top, and often small. The fragmented plastics problem is pervasive in water around the world, Greenpeace senior oceans campaigner David Pinsky tells Teen Vogue. So much so, he says, that “the Environmental Protection Agency’s water samples, [from] water on site, had microplastics in it.”

Microplastics — which, as they sound, are miniature pieces of plastic less than five millimeters long — have been found in human feces, as we unknowingly eat them in fish and most table salts (especially salts from parts of the world with high plastic pollution). While uniform systems of measurement have not yet been established to unify the world’s research, in the GPGP, microplastics have been found to make up 94% of the pieces of plastic in the patch.

Free-roaming man-made plastic matter can devastate the earth. It can lodge itself onto or into sea life not meant to carry or eat it, which can get stuck inside their bodies or cause choking. Microplastics are consumed by wildlife at high rates, with a recorded impact on at least 800 species, including half of the world’s sea turtles and an estimated 60% of all seabird species — a figure predicted to reach 99% by 2050. Plastic ruins soil, leaching contaminants into the ground and waterways, and encourages pathogen growth, which can destroy reefs. When plastics large or small decompose in the sun, they release greenhouse gases that further advance climate change.

When we weren’t trawling, we’d keep watch for plastic from the side of the ship during the day or hit the sea in smaller boats to pull bigger pieces that were potentially branded or stamped and could lead to corporate accountability — a major part of Greenpeace’s current mission, which asks the world to consider what “thrown away” actually looks like. Water samples were also taken in search of microfibers three to five times a day.

Microfibers are a major part of the plastics crisis, but only recently discussed. These microscopic particles, which shed from textiles and are not visible to the human eye, pollute a majority of the world’s tap water and is commonly found in bottled water (in the U.S., 94% of tap water samples in one study included the fibers). They come from both natural materials (like cotton) and synthetic (like spandex) and are “smaller than a human cell,” Pinsky says. The impact of synthetic fibers on human health is still unknown but being investigated, though it’s already clear that the chemicals that make plastic are “endocrine disrupting compounds,” which can mess with human hormones, manipulate the functions of organs, and are said to even influence the presence of ADHD in children.

While fragmented microplastics and miniscule microfibers are still being researched, we already know that the sheer volume of pollution they represent is disrupting the planet. It’s why many reject the notion that the ocean can be “cleaned up” by simply scooping up the plastic and carrying it back to shore. (A highly publicized, extremely expensive “cleanup” effort has even been set into motion by The Ocean Cleanup, a Dutch nonprofit, to little-reported success thus far.) There is simply too much plastic and most of it too small to capture.


Not all plastic in the water is micro; there still is material you can see with your eyes, which adds up in the GPGP and can’t be missed on beach shores around the world. We kept track from the side of the ship during most daylight hours. Talking at sunset one day with engagement coordinator Dan Cannon about his career with Greenpeace, which started when the young organizer was a student, conversation was frequently interrupted to keep count — “another one,” “there’s two more” — of the plastic we’d speed past.

Life aboard a ship is equal parts exhilarating and exhausting. Living on the Sunrise gave me abs — as an icebreaker, it both pitches and rocks side to side, so much so that the crew calls it “the washing machine,” and I was constantly holding on or gripping to stay steady. Each day, we’d get a 7:30 a.m. wakeup call in our bunk beds from Myriam or Robin, two millennial Americans who worked night watch while we slept. Chores were at eight, lunch at noon, and dinner at six, with all meals prepared by Daniel, a talented chef from Mexico City, with help from Amanda, a Hawaiian punk who runs a kayak shop in Seattle, or Pablo, a deckhand from Argentina.

The sea belongs to no country — it’s an international rule — and the Greenpeace team embodied the notion that our environmental efforts should not either. Our radio operator, Rosy, hailed from Brazil, and Cat, the Italian medic, speaks six languages. The first, second, and third mates were from Finland, South Korea, and South Africa. Other crew and campaigners onboard represented Chile, Bulgaria, New Zealand, Canada, Belgium, Great Britain, and France.

In the GPGP’s most concentrated zones, we’d venture out at least once a day in the smaller vessels that the Sunrise housed, lowered into the water by crane with a driver already inside (passengers would get into them through a door on the side of the ship, where we’d hold onto a rope ladder and jump in backward). I found myself with my hands in the sea, pulling out toilet brush handles, bleach bottles, laundry baskets, and the plastic insert for a hard hat. There was a disposable razor handle, hydrogen peroxide container, top of a toolbox, luggage wheel, buckets, a VHS cassette box (with a fish inside of it), an unopened bottle of carbonated water, a piece of Astroturf, a flower pot, and a water cooler lid. White objects were the easiest to spot, but it came in all colors and shapes, fully intact, visibly torn.

The team recovered countless buoys, some as big as a beach ball, others small and compact. These were markers of the fishing industry’s impact on the ocean, which weighs heavily. According to Ocean Cleanup, nearly 50% of the patch’s total plastics tonnage is largely accounted for by fishing gear like plastic-lined nets that have been dumped in or drifted out to sea, with much gear floating toward the area after Japan’s 2011 tsunami. The Sunrise’s motorized crane lifted these “ghostnets” when we chose to stop and pull one from the water (an impressive, if depressing, sight). Fish were to be pulled from the piles and thrown back. Crabs — of which there were many different species, riding on nearly every piece of plastic we pulled from the water — scuttled off, sealing their own fate.

It was hard to not feel the monumental weight of human failure as I spent day after day in the GPGP. Early on in the trip, U.S. actions director for Greenpeace Katie Flynn-Jambeck warned that “we might all cry” when we got to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and she was right. I did. I felt hopeless standing Starboard-side on the Sunrise, counting my 97th piece of large plastic spotted in two hours on watch. Counting and organizing hundreds upon thousands of microplastics, tiny fragments that came bleached white, hot pink, and robin’s egg blue alongside tiny bits of broken-down rope, I found myself thinking about the caps of pens, lids of yogurt, Barbie cars — plastic, everywhere, across the landscape of my life.

This realization was painfully reinforced when I was off the ship and hyper-aware of each product I saw in for sale back home in New York City, where throwaway culture is key. While there have been proposals of banning plastic bags statewide and plastic straws in NYC, the continued manufacturing and use of these products by so many people will continue to pose economic and environmental issues for this other island of trash, where non-recycled plastic is either buried or shipped to landfills in other states.

The solution, many experts now say, is to drastically slow down its production and consumption.

Plastics in the form of reusables like bottles and containers came into prominence among consumer goods after World War II as industries saw dollar signs and used chemicals to introduce new, cheap alternatives to other man-made products, which took skilled labor and natural materials to create. Today, we create 300 million tons of plastic every year, half of which is for single use. We use it every day in packaging for food and beverages; in classroom, office, and cleaning supplies; to wrap and ship products by mail; and even in the clothes we wear.

Long before it makes its way into the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, plastic causes problems: The creation of plastic products and its chemicals relies on fossil fuels — most of which are extracted from the earth in a process known as fracking — and is transformed through refinement for use (which contributes to global warming through leaks). It travels by way of pipelines, which are implanted into predominantly poor communities that are often exposed to pollutants because of leaks. Plastic production itself is carbon-heavy and releases toxins into the environment. These facilities are built along waterways, which can flood in extreme weather and cause additional damage.

From start to never-end, plastic is dangerous, and its demand for land to extract resources from, to house production facilities, and to store waste has violent implications for indigenous, marginalized, and impoverished communities.

As the problem of plastic-related pollution intensifies, the most commonly proposed solutions are outdated. Recycling is important, but it is not enough to negate the impact of manufactured plastics on the environment: Only 9% of all plastic ever created has been. (Plastic packaging, which makes up for about a quarter of the total volume of plastics used, is harder to recycle, as are colored plastics. Biodegradable plastics often need to be processed in facilities, too.) In the extremely frequent instance that a plastic material can’t be recycled — an incineration process that requires energy and emits pollutants into the surrounding community and beyond — it’s dumped into landfills, drawing out pollution of that space to last more than 1,000 years, or shipped from wealthy countries to others with less economic stability or political influence, where people pay the price of litter, pollution, and poisoning. Take for example, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Sri Lanka: these are among the top countries considered “responsible” for marine debris, but are also some of the countries that receive much of the world’s trash (and are then blamed for “mismanagement” of the overwhelming volume).

The politics of plastic are nuanced, and to deter the global crisis means to look beyond the recycling bin and toward “the corporations that got us into this mess,” Pinsky says. “Companies have gotten [used to] a certain way of doing business and actually are pushing the cost off onto us, onto the commons, to our environment, into public health.”

The plastics industry reportedly knew it was polluting the oceans back in the 1950s, but only increased production, keeping consumers in the dark, Pinsky says. It has had great influence over government regulations, been on the receiving end of subsidies, and long-held, widespread lobbying power and deep government ties. Just like the plastics industry, the U.S. government appears to deny that the synthetics are related to health problems.

Up until this year, the U.S. sold its recyclable trash to China — in 2016 alone, it exported 16 million tons. President Donald Trump failed to acknowledge that decades-long relationship (which also has economic ties) when blaming China for the ocean’s plastic crisis while signing legislation in October, pledging a commitment for the U.S. to do its part to “clean up” the world’s oceans. “As president, I will continue to do everything I can to stop other nations from making our oceans into their landfills,” he said.

But, also this year, the United States and Japan were the only two nations that refused to join the G7 Ocean Plastics Charter, a pledge to work toward 100% recyclable, reusable, and recoverable plastics and increase recycling by 50% by 2030. The Trump administration has shown no signs of slowing down the source of the crisis: the plastics industry. In fact, it has displayed quite a bit of support, from its move to reallow plastic bottles in national parks to environmental rollbacks that mark a committed partnership with the fossil fuel industry.


The industry is made up of everyday brands that are responsible for manufacturing billions of plastics and plastic packaging each year, largely single-use, but have little to no transparency as to exactly how much they create or distribute. An audit of plastic debris collected from six continents by the Break Free From Plastic movement, a group of over 1,400 organizations, found the world’s biggest polluters to be a who's-who of consumer culture. While in the GPGP, we pulled out still-branded, fully-intact plastic products identical to ones that I’ve enjoyed. (Some of these brands spoke with Teen Vogue about their plans to combat the plastics problem in an additional story for this series, expressing “ambitious goals” to use reused plastic content or biodegradable products, but no plans to create less overall.)

It often feels hard to avoid using plastic when, say, buying food at the grocery store, but Pinsky explains that the store itself and the brands it stocks can avoid plastic products in packaging and offer alternatives. Greenpeace has asked major grocery store chains to consider a full audit of all plastic products in their stores — a daunting, “almost impossible” task that gets them really thinking about the overall issue, according to Pinsky (who encourages those interested in combating plastics to hold their local chains accountable, too).

Grocery stores have adapted before, Pinsky notes. He worked on Greenpeace’s 2018 Carting Away the Oceans report, which has audited major chains for their seafood sustainability since 2008. The campaign has seen major changes happen over time, largely thanks to consumers and activists holding corporations responsible. All retailers in the first report received failing grades, and by this year, 20 out of 22 passed, though at time of its publication, not one of the profiled retailers had “major, comprehensive commitments to reduce and ultimately phase out their reliance on single-use plastics.” However, change could be on its way: Just after the report was released in August, Kroger Co. (which operates multiple store banners such as Kroger, Ralphs, and Harris Teeter) promised to ditch plastic bags in all of its stores by 2025 and plans to "divert 90% of [its] waste from the landfill” by 2020. Pinsky says that to show true commitment, a comprehensive plan to reduce single-use plastic must be released, too.

But as for the companies producing those products on the shelves themselves, few attempts have been reportedly made to develop major innovative solutions, despite the well-documented problem. Pinsky says that if the grocery stores they’ve worked with are any indicator, it’s in their best interest for leaders of every industry to start working on a fix to move away from fossil-fuel based plastics, and soon — their competitors may already be doing so, because it’s what this new generation of consumers demands. Meanwhile, their products, either plastic or packaged in plastic, are sold to consumers as safe to use despite varied risks — major and minor — that are associated with its use.

Some companies are starting to look at recycled ocean-bound plastic as a source material, however, because it’s smart for their business’s bottom line. HP and IKEA, for example, are both part of NextWave Plastics, a global business consortium focused on keeping plastics “in the economy and out of the ocean,” which also includes Dell and General Motors. (IKEA has also promised to phase out all single-use plastics by 2020.) Beauty brands are starting to do the same. Food and fashion are both beginning to get creative to avoid contributing further to the epidemic as well.

Major changes at the production level like these are necessary to do anything about plastics, but individuals still have their role to play even beyond being conscious of their own plastic usage. Consumers have been putting the pressure on, and the younger generation is embracing the challenge to keep that momentum going. “The brands that young people care about, those brands care about them and are trying to deliver products […] and be hip and socially responsible as well, because they know that young people care about this,” Pinsky says. “Younger generations can say, ‘enough is enough.’”

Teen activists have made big changes in their communities by demanding alternatives to plastics in schools and local businesses, and they can call out corporations at any time by tagging them on social media when they see branded plastic in a waterway or natural space, Pinsky says. Lawmakers are starting to get smart to the idea that the crisis needs solving now, with the recent proposal of a Green New Deal. And in addition to bearing witness to the problem up close, organizations like Greenpeace are putting the pressure on corporations in a myriad of ways, including a petition that [asks major companies like Coca-Cola, Starbucks, and PepsiCo to “invest in alternatives and phase out single-use plastic.”

It’s time for protests and bans, Pinsky says — and it’s on us, a world of people who’ve been conditioned to rely on plastics, to stand up in our own defense.


What you won’t hear about the GPGP is that it’s also remarkably beautiful. That far out at sea — no distinct matted island in sight — the water is almost purple at its stillest, with neon ice-white-and-blue curls when crashing. It was refreshing to stand on the deck and imagine all the Pacific Ocean travelers before us; I found it romantic, as nature should be. But I was snapped out of my daydreams each day in the Patch and faced again and again with the environmental crisis that modern humans have caused.

Plastic is unnatural and upsetting, and felt so there, as it does when seen in streambeds and in forests. It’s simply more concentrated, therefore dramatic, in this part of the sea. Facing the world’s crisis in its farthest-reaching corner forced me to remember our place and time in history. I could not walk across an “island,” but I saw enough devastation in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch to feel deep shame. Plastics were everywhere and are more destructive and detrimental than we could have ever imagined.

Without any immediate and drastic change to the way we produce and consume plastics, by 2050, production is expected to have quadrupled. This will exacerbate an already-bleak climate change outlook, as average global warming since pre-industrial levels could be about twice what it is now by then, too. Substantial change will take mass participation from individuals, governments, and industries who will need to join forces to reimagine our planet. The damage and impact of plastic pollution is clear, but re-envisioning the future of consumption is an uncharted path. To activists like those in Greenpeace, it means seeing plastic as trash before it hits the Great Pacific Garbage Patch — while it’s still on shelves, in every new beverage bottle or trinket we buy — and rejecting what’s become normalized for something new: a plastic-free world.

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