NASA Video Reveals How 35 Years of Trash Turned Into Ocean Garbage Patches

The Scientific Visualization Team used computer models to show how plastic and other refuse collects in five spots.
Aug 31, 2015·
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

It’s no secret that when all the cigarette butts, food wrappers, Styrofoam coffee cups, plastic bottles, and other trash that gets tossed on the ground washes down storm drains, it ends up in the world’s waterways. Hello, dirty beaches, sick marine life, and ocean garbage patches.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is the most well known, but there are five gigantic clumps of trash in the world’s oceans. Now, a visualization by NASA shows how all the litter people around world carelessly toss onto streets and sidewalks travels on ocean currents and settles into those five gross globs of drifting detritus. The journey a single-use plastic bottle of water takes as it floats on the waves can’t be tracked with a satellite, so NASA visualized how discarded rubbish moves with the next best thing: buoys.

RELATED: See the Whales Swimming in an Ocean of 70,000 Plastic Water Bottles

“We start with data from floating, scientific buoys that NOAA has been distributing in the oceans for the last 35 years, represented here as white dots. Let’s speed up time to see where the buoys go,” NASA data analyst Greg Shirah explains in the video above. To move the buoys accurately, NASA’s Scientific Visualization Studio uses a computational model, ECCO2, which estimates the circulation and climate of the ocean—sure enough, the buoys end up congregating where there are garbage patches.

Shirah and the rest of his team then add particles—think of those as plastic bags or soda bottle caps—to the visualization. “We release particles evenly around the world and let the modeled currents carry the particles,” he says. “The particles from the model also migrate to the garbage patches.”

Last week, the Ocean Cleanup Project, an enormous floating structure that is designed to clean the trash from the world’s waterways, completed a monthlong expedition to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. “The vast majority of the plastic in the garbage patch is currently locked up in large pieces of debris, but UV light is breaking it down into much more dangerous microplastics, vastly increasing the amount of microplastics over the next few decades if we don’t clean it up,” the structure’s inventor, 21-year-old Boyan Slat, said at a press conference. “It really is a ticking time bomb.”

Plastic waste causes approximately $13 billion in destruction to beaches and ocean habitats, according to the United Nations Environment Programme. Add the billions of microbeads being washed down the world’s drains every day to what’s already floating in these five gyres of garbage, and the impact on the food chain could prove to be even more disastrous.