The world's largest garbage dump is a vortex of oceanic trash -- most of which is made up of small particles of discarded plastic -- known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. This behemoth of garbage has accumulated over the past several decades in the northern Pacific Ocean. The massive rubbish heap sits about 1,000 miles (about 1,600 kilometers) north of the Hawaiian Islands and can extend at times as far as the California coast near San Francisco. The whirling body of trash moves and changes shape with ocean currents, making it difficult to estimate the size of the marine dump accurately. The size is also difficult to estimate because much of the trash sits below the water's surface. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is actually one of several such floating garbage dumps around the world.
Before the garbage patch was actually observed, the United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) used ocean water samples to predict the accretion of such a marine wasteland in 1988. The NOAA suggested that the accumulation of neuston plastic -- meaning plastic waste that floats on or near the surface of the water -- in the Pacific Ocean was becoming an increasingly threatening phenomenon. The report published by the NOAA in 1988 found that neuston plastic density was highest in the northern Pacific Ocean and near Japan, even containing an astonishing 316,800 pieces of plastic per square kilometer in the waters just east of Japan [source: NOAA].
A seafaring scientist named Capt. Charles Moore discovered a striking visual confirmation of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in 1997. While on the way home from a recreational sailboat-race, Moore and his crew happened to coast into an unbelievably huge glob of discarded plastic flotsam in a less-traveled part of the Pacific Ocean. Moore described the mass as "soupy" in nature, made of all kinds of mixed-up plastic bits, including bottle caps, coat hangers, tires, chemical drums, fishing nets and a volleyball [source: Moore].
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