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The Great Pacific Garbage Patch isn't what you think

CBS News logo CBS News 8/19/2019 Brit McCandless Farmer
a close up of a map: ot-plasticplague-garbagepatchmap.jpg © Credit: CBSNews ot-plasticplague-garbagepatchmap.jpg

The world's largest collection of ocean debris is also the most famous, but its name, the "Great Pacific Garbage Patch," is a misnomer.

For starters, it's not one giant patch.

"It's not a mass. It's nothing you can see from space, all these things one's heard," 60 Minutes producer Michael Gavshon said in the video above. "But in fact, it's just a giant soup, a gyre. It's a whirlpool of tiny fragments of plastic in the ocean at various depths."

Along with 60 Minutes associate producer David Levine, Gavshon produced a report this week on the plague of plastic in the ocean. While on Midway Atoll, they spoke with Kevin O'Brien, who, at the time, oversaw marine debris removal between California and Hawaii for the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. O'Brien said that when he sailed through the Garbage Patch, he noticed an uptick in the amount of plastic he was seeing all around him, but it wasn't quite an island of trash.

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a close up of a map © Provided by CBS Interactive Inc.

"I saw lots of things floating in the water — a large derelict fishing net, a ghost net, or I might see a bottle or a crate" he said. "Even if the debris isn't so intense that it's a floating mat of trash, even if it's more disperse than that, it could still hold an enormous amount of plastic."

O'Brien said plastics floating in the ocean are exposed to several environmental factors — including waves, reefs and rocks — that cause them to break down into smaller fragments, which are difficult to clean.

"The plastics spread out," Levine said. "It's under the surface. It's not an easy thing to mop up. If it were a garbage island, I think it probably would be much easier to clean up."

a man smiling for the camera in front of water: Kevin O'Brien © Provided by CBS Interactive Inc. Kevin O'Brien

To watch the 60 Minutes two-part report about plastics pollution, click here.

The video above was originally published on December 16, 2018. It was produced by Will Croxton and Brit McCandless Farmer and edited by Will Croxton. Ann Silvio was the interviewer.

Underwater footage courtesy of NatureFootage and Getty Images

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