The Great Pacific Garbage Patch has grown to twice the size of Texas

It’s largely fishing gear, though plastic is accumulating at an exponential rate

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is way bigger than we thought it was.

At 618,000 square miles, it’s more than twice the size of Texas and nearly as big as the state of Alaska. That it makes it four to 16 times larger than previously thought, according to new research published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Until now, little was known about what made up the patch, even enormous as it is, sitting in the waters between California and Hawaii. It’s become a sort of myth, first spotted in 1997 by a sailor, Charles Moore, who cruised through it on his way from Hawaii to California. Now, advocates have gone so far as to put together a campaign to declare the patch a state.

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But a group of researchers, by surveying the patch from planes and collecting samples of it, now have a better sense for how big it is and what it’s made of.

It turns out, it’s largely fishing gear, though plastic is accumulating in it at an exponential rate. The entire patch weighs some 79 metric tons, 46 percent of which is made up of fishing nets, eel traps, and other fishing industry gear. But 94 percent of the individual pieces of stuff floating in the patch are made of plastic.

“I knew there would be a lot of fishing gear, but 46 percent was unexpectedly high,” Laurent Lebreton, an oceanographer with the Ocean Cleanup and the study’s lead author told National Geographic. “Initially, we thought fishing gear would be more in the 20 percent range. That is the accepted number [for marine debris] globally — 20 percent from fishing sources and 80 percent from land.”

And the researchers estimate that up to 20 percent of all the trash that’s accumulated in the patch since 2011 came from the tsunami that struck Japan that year.

It’s definitely not getting any smaller. The floating trash heap is growing in size, and drifting along with ocean currents as it does so.

Luckily, an enterprising kid has a plan to scoop up that trash. When Boyan Slat was 16, he came up with a system to clean up the ocean’s trash. Now 23, he’s working to put that plan into action. It uses long, U-shaped barriers to collect the trash in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. He estimates that with about 60 of these devices, they’ll be able to collect about half the trash in the big patch. His company, Ocean Cleanup, is building the devices, and he plans to launch his first full-scale version of the device by mid-2018, according to the company’s website.

Cover Image: In this May 5, 2016, image provided by the state of Hawaii, ocean debris accumulates in Kahuku, Hawaii on the North Shore of Oahu. An aerial survey shows that much of the debris that accumulates on the shores of Hawaii is from fishing gear and plastics discarded locally. (Dan Dennison/Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources via AP)