Four main ways that harmful trash ends up in the ocean

Improper waste disposal and handling

When trash or recyclables are transported from residential trashcans and/or commercial dumpsters to landfills or recycling facilities, some items often fall off the vehicle or get blown away because they are lightweight. Often times people place trash and recyclables into overflowing bins, attracting unwanted birds or other wildlife scavengers, causing the excess debris to be carried or blow away and scattered onto the streets, beaches, waterways, etc.


Litter thrown on the streets is carried by wind and rainwater into storm drains. The polluted runoff flows into our streams and rivers, and eventually into the ocean. In California, storm drains are not connected to wastewater treatment plants, which means litter which enters the storm drains goes straight into the ocean. Litter on the beach or beach goers who neglect to properly dispose of their trash, is also a large source of trash that gets washed in the ocean by the wind.

Products that go down the drains

When we wash our clothes in the washing machine, fabric microfibers (some of which may contain plastics) are released. These microfibers go down our drains into wastewater treatment plants. They are too small to be filtered out by wastewater treatments and end up being released into our waterways.

Marine activities

Fishermen lose and/or irresponsibly abandon their fishing gear-including nets and ropes-because of storms, other passing vessels, or simply abandon them because they are old and worn out.  Sometimes, people on boats throw their trash overboard, or trash accidentally falls, gets blown or washed off vessels into the water.

How Does Trash End Up in the Ocean?

Garbage Patches in the Oceans

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is the largest among all five gyres. It is located halfway between Hawaii and California and is estimated to be twice the size of Texas. The most common types of trash found here are made of rigid  polyethylene (PE), polypropylene (PP) and fishing gear.

To learn more about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and the research done by the Ocean Clean up, visit The Great Ocean Cleanup.


Once litter makes its way offshore, it is transported by gyres,  circular currents in the oceans resulting from wind patterns and the rotation of the earth, and eventually accumulate into garbage patches. There are five known swirling garbage zones in the oceans that consist primarily of trash, plastics, micro plastics, cans, glass bottles, cigarette butts, and fishing gear.