As depressing as it may be, science is revealing more and more about the huge amount of plastic we're pouring into the ocean. New research has shown that its most tangible manifestation, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP), is a whole lot larger than we thought, with the bigger pieces forming a substantial piece of the pie.

The study was carried out by the Ocean Cleanup Foundation together with six universities from around the world. Led by the young Dutch inventor Boyan Slat, the Ocean Cleanup gang has made it its mission to tackle the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, with plans to deploy huge trash-collecting booms in the area later this year.

But the Foundation says earlier attempts to size up the patch have involved a bit of guesswork, with researchers using mesh nets to collect samples only able to cover a relatively small surface area. Over the past year three years it has taken a more comprehensive approach to surveying the patch, and has now created what it says is a much more complete picture of the problem.

The team deployed 30 vessels in the patch at the same time, all fitted with surface sampling nets, including a mothership that dragged a pair of six-meter wide devices to collect medium to large-sized plastic pieces. The work of the ships was calibrated with data collected by aircraft equipped with advanced sensors, which flew over the patch gathering multispectral imagery and 3D scans of all the trash.

The vessels collected 1.2 million plastic samples and the aircraft scanned more than 300 sq km (115 sq mi) of ocean. The researchers say that its results indicate the Great Pacific Garbage Patch measures 1.6 million sq km, an area three times the size of continental France.

Within it are 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic, weighing 80,000 metric tons, around the same as 500 jumbo jets. Ninety-two percent of this is made up of larger objects, while the remaining eight percent is attributed to microplastics, categorized as pieces less than 5 mm in size. These figures are between four and sixteen times higher than previous estimates.

"Although it is not possible to draw any firm conclusions on the persistency of plastic pollution in the GPGP yet, this plastic accumulation rate inside the GPGP, which was greater than in the surrounding waters, indicates that the inflow of plastic into the patch continues to exceed the outflow," says Laurent Lebreton, lead author of the study.

The research was published in the journal Scientific Reports.

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