A two-decade-long study revealed a concentration of plastic debris in the Atlantic Ocean, much like the more widely known Pacific Trash Vortex. The BBC reports:
The work is the conclusion of the longest and most extensive record of plastic marine debris in any ocean basin. Scientists and students from the [Sea Education Association] collected plastic and marine debris in fine mesh nets that were towed behind a research vessel…
The researchers carried out 6,100 tows in areas of the Caribbean and the North Atlantic – off the coast of the US. More than half of these expeditions revealed floating pieces of plastic on the water surface. These were pieces of low-density plastic that are used to make many consumer products, including plastic bags.
The maximum plastic density — 200,000 pieces per square kilometer — is comparable to the Pacific Garbage Patch, though the size of both patches is hard to estimate. The Pacific Vortex is often described as a “plastic continent,” but this isn’t strictly accurate. Although the total area is indeed continental, the plastic pieces are generally small (up to one centimeter across) and widely dispersed.
Nevertheless, plastic debris in the ocean is a serious problem. Dr. Lavender Law, part of the team of researchers from SEA, told BBC News that, while specific impacts remain unknown,
“…we know that many marine organisms are consuming these plastics and we know this has a bad effect on seabirds in particular.”
The very thing that makes plastic useful, its durability, also makes it a problem for oceans. Plastic does not decompose, but breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces. While it’s clear that plastic debris is hazardous, it’s difficult to judge the actual “size” of the Garbage Patch. In her (highly recommended) book The World is Blue, oceanographer Sylvia Earle, Explorer-in-Residence at the National Geographic Society, writes,
“[The Pacific Trash Vortex] is as big, as wide, as deep as the ocean itself. On every dive I have made in the past 30 years, whether snorkeling or in deep-diving submarines, trash of some sort, and sometimes of many sorts, is visibly present.” (page 94)