Getting Trashed

A giant patch of garbage in the Pacific threatens Hawaii’s beaches and wildlife.
The size of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch makes it impossible to clean up.

Photo by Cynthia Vanderlip and courtesy of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation.

Where is it?

On either side of Hawaii, two “eyes” of the Garbage Patch act like cemeteries where garbage breaks down. The Eastern Patch, located halfway between the Islands and San Francisco, could be twice the size of Texas.


How’s Hawaii Affected?  

Algalita Research Foundation founder Charles Moore estimates that more than 90 percent of the trash on Hawai‘i beaches is not generated in the Islands. Kamilo Beach on the Big Island (above), gets the worst of the debris influx, with trash over a foot deep in some areas.


What about Wildlife?

Like fish, birds that troll the Pacific consume tiny plastic bits, as shown in this albatross carcass from Kure Atoll. A 1987 study published in the Marine Pollution Bulletin found that 90 percent of albatross chicks on Oahu and Midway contained plastic in their digestive systems.


Capt. Charles Moore wasn’t always obsessed with plastic. His fixation began in 1997, while sailing back to Los Angeles from Hawaii after a yacht race. He took an unusual easterly route, snubbed by most sailors for its lack of wind, and discovered what’s now called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch—a soupy expanse of plastic bits and marine debris that extends from the Sea of Japan to within 500 miles west of California.

Moore, the founder of Long Beach, Calif.-based Algalita Research Foundation, estimates that the entire Garbage Patch is larger than the United States. The trash consists of mostly blue and white plastic fragments of such consumer items as toothbrushes, cigarette lighters and felt pens. Most of the debris is submerged from one inch to 300 feet deep, but other objects—nets,buoys, crates and other fishing gear—float on the surface, as well.

The trash comes from all over the Pacific Rim and feeds into the North Pacific Gyre, a clockwise vortex of ocean currents and winds. “It’s like a giant toilet bowl that doesn’t have an exit,” explains Moore. The Garbage Patch makes continuous deposits on Hawaii’s shores. On the Big Island’s southern tip, for example, it spits its contents onto Kamilo Beach, completely covering it in areas. Every island has a bad spot, Moore says, with Hawaii’s windward beaches, such as Waima-nalo, receiving the brunt of the trash. “Over 90 percent of the stuff on Hawaii’s beaches is not coming from Hawaii.”

The plastic bits have also entered the marine food web. In February 2008, Moore and his crew collected 500 lantern fish from the Eastern Garbage Patch, and found that 85 percent of the larger species were eating plastic.

And the Garbage Patch is only getting worse. In the same study, early results show that double the amount of plastic bits were tallied compared to a 1999 survey. Moore says that, because of its size, the Garbage Patch can’t be cleaned up. “Most of the plastic is the size of plankton, so if you remove the plastic, you would have to remove the plankton with it,” he says.