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South Pacific garbage patch bigger than Mexico

Posted at 9:26 AM, Aug 16, 2017
and last updated 2019-03-18 16:13:02-04

(CNN) - A research team has discovered a massive "garbage patch" in the South Pacific Ocean.

The surface area of the patch is estimated to be bigger than Mexico.

Algalita Marine Research and Education, a non-profit group dedicated to solving the sea's plastic pollution problem, confirmed the patch's existence off the coast of Chile and Peru.

Charles Moore, the founder of Algalita Marine Research and Education, estimates it to be as big as 2 million square kilometers, larger than Mexico.

In 1997, Moore discovered a massive garbage patch in the North Pacific.

Winds around a persistent high-pressure system drive ocean currents, creating a vortex known as a gyre, causing debris to collect in a central location.

"I call it a plastic soup," Moore said. "If you think of the ocean as a liquid in a soup, we've gone from creamy to extra chunky."

Moore and his team spent months trawling the South Pacific collecting samples - from large objects to plastic the size of a grain of rice.

"The surface waters are where we see the debris and it is mostly particulate. The size class that's most common is between 1 and 3 mm in diameter. But we find interesting objects," Moore said. "We also found a lot of tubs that are used in sorting fish in the fisheries that are manufactured in New Zealand, a lot of fishing buoys, and of course, the most common things that we find out there are the floating bottles and the bottle caps."

The plastic poses a major threat to marine life.

Small lantern fish come to the surface at night to feed on plankton. Many eat small microplastics instead and are then unable to swim back to the bottom, the plastic acting like a buoy.

Not only do these fish ingest chemicals from the plastic, but so do the larger fish who eat them.

Algalita Marine Research found 35 percent of lantern fish in the previously discovered North Pacific pollution patch are eating plastic.

The researchers are sifting through the samples to try to get a better understanding of what types of plastic they collected.

Moore said the throw-away society needs to change.

"We have to fear plastic for not only what it does to the marine environment, but what it's doing to us," he said. "We need to fear it, and we need to respect it because it's being treated like waste, like trash - like it's just this wrapper that you throw away. And we've got to have a new attitude about that in which we realize that it must have an afterlife. It must be reincarnated. It must be part of a circular economy, or it's going to end up in the ocean and destroy marine life."

The group is working with plastic companies, Coca Cola and Dow.

"We're working desperately to reshape the thinking of those who are making this stuff to create this infrastructure to take it back, to have a secular economy," Moore said.

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