PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN JOHNSON, ONEBREATHPHOTO.COM
Published April 14, 2014
Tony Haymet, former director of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, has heard hundreds of ocean cleanup plans. Late at night, over many beers, he's come up with a few dozen of his own. None of them, he says, has seemed likely to work.
That includes this spring's offerings. A Dutch engineering student, Boyan Slat, envisions a contraption with massive booms that would sweep debris into a huge funnel. Songwriter and music producer Pharrell Williams wants to fund the monumental cost of any cleanup by turning recycled ocean plastic into yarn and then clothes.
The challenge is huge. For one thing, the garbage is spread over millions of square miles. For another, it's made up mostly of degraded plastic, broken down by sunlight and waves into tiny bits the size of grains of rice.
"That's what makes it so horrifying," Haymet says. "The micro-plastic is the same size as the stuff living in the water column. How would we ever go out and collect it? So far no one's come up with a plan to separate all the micro-plastic from the living life that's the same size."
In the face of growing criticism, Slat had to back off his optimistic boast that he could clean up the oceans in five years. He posted a notice on his website asking the media and the critics to wait until he finishes his research.
Meanwhile, the garbage keeps growing.
Consider this alarming statistic from CSIRO, Australia's national science agency, which is wrapping up a three-year study of marine debris: Every decade global production of plastics doubles. Even if someone came up with a workable collecting mechanism, how much impact could it have?
"If we are doubling what we are putting into the ocean on a ten-year basis, there's no way to keep up," says Chris Wilcox, an ecologist at CSIRO. "It would be as if you were vacuuming your living room, and I'm standing at the doorway with a bag of dust and a fan. You can constantly keep vacuuming, but you could never catch up."
The Garbage Patches
Most of the garbage accumulates in five little-explored "patches" found in the doldrums of the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans.
The largest is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which starts a few hundred miles off the coast of North America and stretches to a few hundred miles off the coast of Japan; a more concentrated area lies between California and Hawaii.
One commonly accepted estimate is that the high-density area inside the Great Pacific Garbage Patch contains 480,000 pieces of plastic per square kilometer (nearly four-tenths of a square mile). But scientists say that's only a guess.
Charles Moore, who "discovered" the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in the late 1990s and plans a research trip there in July, estimates that altogether the globe's garbage patches contain 200 million tons of floating debris. He came up with the figure based on calculations that 2.5 percent of the world's plastic ends up in the sea.
Marcus Eriksen, a marine scientist and co-founder of the California-based 5 Gyres, which studies the five main garbage patches, estimates the total floating debris is just 500,000 tons.
In either case, the harm to fish and other sea creatures is increasing. A 2009 research trip to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch by Scripps found 9 percent of the fish had ingested plastic. Eriksen, with help from seven other scientists, recently analysed material in all of the garbage patches. Of 671 fish collected, 35 percent had ingested plastic particles.
"Either number scares me," Haymet says. "Those are only the sick fish—not the ones who died because they ate plastic that was too big. And they are the only two studies. There should be hundreds of studies of this stuff. Our life, our economies are totally dependent on the oceans. Fifty percent of the oxygen we breathe is made in the ocean every night."
Addressing the Problem
Haymet and like-minded ocean scientists haven't given up. They favor a low-tech, more practical approach to protecting the oceans from trash: Persuade the world's people to stop littering.
Only about 20 percent of ocean plastic comes from marine sources, such as discarded fishing equipment or cargo ship mishaps. About 80 percent of it washes out to sea from beach litter or was carried downstream in rivers, according to the CSIRO study, which is considered the most comprehensive.
About half of that litter is plastic bottles. Most of the rest is packaging.
"All of that stuff was in a human's hand at one point or another," Wilcox says. "The essence of the solution is to provide incentives for people not to throw this stuff away. It is the cheapest, simplest, and far most efficient solution to the problem."
Creating incentives to help reduce littering can be a political challenge. Only one of Australia's eight main states and territories has a beverage-container deposit law, says Britta Denise Hardesty, who conducted the CSIRO study.
In the U.S. only ten states—including California, Maine, Massachusetts, and Connecticut-have enacted container deposit laws. Opinion polls show support for such laws, but beverage manufacturers have opposed legislation. They argue that bottle deposits are more expensive than other forms of recycling and that requiring deposits constitutes a tax, which increases the cost of beverages.
"When you think about climate change, it's hard to reduce our carbon footprint, because we have to go through a fundamental shift in our economies," Wilcox says. "With plastic, when you're throwing a bottle cap on the ground, that should be an easy impact to get rid of."
I believe part of the issue in the UK is what we are prepared to accept: what is OK to live with. We feel we cannot challenge when we see something wrong happening. It will take a generation to change our way of thinking; this is not acceptable. The tide is turning slowly. When I was/a child nothing was recycled, now we recycle from home. Change is not fast enough though and no political party is going to commit to swift change as it would mean that they would lose votes. This is where the problem is. Change is required, the public don't like change to be too quick and no party has the nerve to force through change fast enough because of political suicide.
Having studied the problem in both Australia and PNG over the past 20+ years. The problem is the current accumulation of debris through the non education of people in general. I am not an academic, However natural curiosity indicates that any collection method will not remove all plastics from a marine environment.
All methods of collection will damage/harm marine creatures. There if no net system which will collect only debris.
Plastics researchers have indicated that the various types of plastics disintegrate eventually down to the molecular level. These molecules have been found in Diatoms and in turn in some forms of plankton and mollocus in measurable amounts.
Any removal method must minimise harm to all marine creatures, currently the Exocetus Foundation International is exploring collection methods and the conversion of the plastics into Bio-diesel, ethane, methane, propane and Biochar.
The Exocetus Foundation is not working alone and is being assisted by more than 30 individuals and organizations who are giving their expertise and knowledge on a pro bono basis in assisting the Exocetus Foundation International to reach its immediate goals within 3 years.
Plastics do not in themselve produce Biochar, organisms and other materials attached to the plastics will revert to their carbon base. Metal attached will remain metal and shells will remain as shells. The system currently being evaluated could pick up items as small as 1mm in diameter.
The amount of debris is spread over such an extensive area that it is not possible to collect the plastics, separate the items collected, convert them and expect to make "millions" from the fuels produced.
An illustration would be a large bowl of soup and 2 grains of barley floating and you trying to remove them with a chop stick. Not profitable.
Have you taken the Eco-Brick Challenge? Use this method to end litter, contain and compress plastic waste, and produce alternative building materials:
1. Get a clean and dry empty plastic bottle and save the cap.
2. Go for a walk with your bottle and locate a nice long stick.
3. Stuff your bottle with plastics and inorganic waste materials.
4. Compress all articles layer by layer from the bottom to the top.
5. Once fully compressed with inorganic waste, cap your bottle.
6. Give your eco-brick a face and name with a marker.
7. Take a selfie with your eco-brick and spread the word.
Cheers for discovering the Eco-Brick Landfill and Ocean Diversion Device.
Several countries around the world have container deposit laws. And this system actually works in its simplicity, encouraging consumers to recycle by giving them a deposit return on containers. Question is: why do some states and countries succeed in implementing container depositing, while others fall short to the influence of beverage companies? It seems to boil down to politicall will and vision.
what we have to expect from 2050? i guess there will no be such thing like untouchable landscapes and sustainble environment for many species that we`re used to know so don`t answer your children when they`ll ask you how was the world before human first imprint, `cause they will be shoked how fast man transformed planet face for ever
why in the world aren't we still using re-usable glass bottles? beer was always in bottles that you paid a deposit on once, and always brought them back, they were cleaned, filled, and reused many times over. plastic water bottles should be banned, period. and littering should be heavily fined.
Shame, shame, shame on beverage manufacturers! Someone should dump a load of empty bottles on each and every CEO's doorstep.
It all starts from each individual's mindset. How much does each individual actually care about the environment? Each person can make a difference. On a daily basis, I see people using plastic ( bottles, cups, etc.): drinking sodas, frozen drinks, iced drinks, etc. and then THROWING IT AWAY. If each person could take responsibility for that piece of plastic they used and actually make sure it gets to a recycling bin/facility, it would make a huge impact on our environment. WE NEED TO BE RESPONSIBLE FOR WHAT WE USE ON A DAILY BASIS. We need to teach children and ALSO to be an example SO they can do the same because WE CAN MAKE A DIFFERENCE, and can children since they are OUR future.
If a business was able to make money cleaning the oceans, the problem would be front of mind and a solution would be forthcoming.http://www.youtube.com/embed/qGGabrorRS8?rel=0
When they received monney back from plastic they then stop throwing it out. I think they start collect it...
A lot of Australian were very pleased at the suggestion that they would be able to claim a deposit back for drink bottles. However it hasn't gone ahead as COCA COLA opposed it with legal action.
we may be not yet able to remove the small debris, but we can continue to reduce the big trash in the sea and on the beach. These efforts should be able to reduce the creation of small debris. we also need to look at ways of more efficient and effective in reducing the large trash. To be more easier, more economical, to be done with fewer human resources, and also faster.
The micro-plastic is a nightmare...but certainly we should get started on the big stuff, working on those huge "patches", with giant nets or something, before it becomes micro. And of course we need to stop it from getting into the ocean in the first place.
It really seems we need to quickly find an easily bio-degradable plastic-like material, such as made from cellulose. And in the meantime, focus hard on recycling the plastic, and cutting down on packaging. Although I wish it weren't, I think its a boondoggle trying to find a mechanical way to clean up millions of square miles of very remote oceans. However, more power to those thinking of ways.
If only we could just be cruel and find a way to move it all into the public beach areas. What better way to make people take responsibility than to show them the effects of their littering. Why would the public care if it floats away. Classic example of out of sight, out of mind
Governments (through social pressure) along with Corporates - Foundations etc should set up recycling plants as a business network to cover the country based on the waste creation.
This should also encourage the the poor and the teenage population to make it into a real income earner
Here's an idea... find a method to scare off the life inside the debris field such as sound or light. Intense enough to scare off without harming them. Then after they leave suck it all up. Hope we can clean it up.
@James Robledo there are pictures on the Internet!
Excuse me, but where exactly are the photos of this patch?? All the search inquiries bring up costal & miscellaneous images.
The costal trash is understandable, but to claim a giant patch that seems to be elusive of cameras like a Yeti is........curious..........
Again, I will state my clean-up idea that stems from the Exxon Valdez spill off of Alaska. The big oil companies were forced to develop ships to clean up & contain the oil spills and they keep a fleet of them ready for the next eco-disaster. Why not give them an incentive to use them now to clean up garbage fields that are floating in these areas and then find a re-use for the materials retrieved?
I totally agree about using single use plastics and education. Another action is to make requests. We love this burger place its locally owned so they use grass fed beef and do other things too. When we needed take out it was plastic containers. It drove us nuts. We got why they used them because of the liquid & price. We spoke to the owner about it. He said it would be more expensive to have something that was paper or eco friendly. We said pass on the extra 8 cents or 1 because he had the exact numbers and they also used a plastic bag. Next time we got takeout.. A new eco friendly paper container and a paper bag. Just letting them know what you want and will be willing to pay extra or whatever. We are now going to make this request at all places we eat so they know. I hate straws or any single use. I do my best to not use it. Traveling is the hardest when you need a bar or something because you ran out of food or need something you can carry around. I have food allergies but overall we have educated people and are taking action. I think one of the biggest is water but if you start the conversation on how that can affect health. It makes a world of difference. Also we need solutions like what can we suggest that will take the place of that packaging. Some things we dont have that yet so to have the solution that will be best part. it makes it easy to switch.. Also stop talking about recycling that is the last thing that we should do with plastic. The 1 & 2's can be recycled but its downcycling. Refusing plastic is the best thing to do. I am not perfect but I keep looking at ways to get rid of more. Like ask a company to use glass instead of plastic jars. Our health and the planet are affected by this. Its easy dont buy there product until a change comes.
I think a big part of this is single use plastics. No one thinks about it anymore when they are sitting in a restaurant or getting fast food. I do think that there are some places that are at least trying, though. All of the zoos and aquariums I have worked at do not allow straws or lids of any kind, unless they are reusable. One of my friends even carries a metal straw with her everywhere! I think education is going to be the answer, and it starts with us. We need to spread the word. It's so easy to talk to friends about it and encourage them to make less of an impact.
At some point, irresponsible use of plastic bottles (such as water
and food containers) will simply have to be outlawed, and glass and
other material brought back (and strictly recycled). Plastic bags can
be replaced with cloth or net ones. And we'll have to stop plasticizing
so many of our paper containers.
Also, asking people not to litter is well-meaning, but naive. We've had more than fifty years of developing stupid, irresponsible habits with plastic. They won't go away by themselves. A behavior change on such a scale will have to be legislated and enforced, until we, as a species, develop the maturity not to need to be policed like children.
Unfortunately, governments in North America have neither the guts nor the will to take on the packaging and food processing industries. The Europeans, maybe...
If interested, there are a couple of books that I read back in the early nineties that spelled out the 'future'. One is called 'heat' by Arthur Herzog, the other 'nature's end', by Whitley streiber. These two books changed my life and my outlook. We need to stand together. I'm on Facebook. If you're like-minded, let's work together. I have a ten year-old daughter, who is very, very concerned with where the world's going. Check out captain Watson, I believe his name is. He's on Facebook too. He's out there every day fighting the good fight. We need to work together to stand up for what's right.
At some point, irresponsible use of plastic bottles (as for water and food containers) will simply have to be outlawed, and glass and other material brought back. Plastic bags can be replaced with cloth or net ones.
And asking people not to litter is well-meaning, but naive. We've had fifty years of developing stupid, irresponsible habits. They won't go away by themselves. A behavior change on such a scale will have to be legislated and enforced, until we, as a species, develop the maturity not to need to be policed like children.
Some people just don,t care about, that garbage they don,t care that it contaminating the ocean and beaches ,they have no care for the enviroment . Its only a few of us who really really care. The earths is the Lords and the fullness thereof treat it with Love and Respct
It is disappointing that it has even come to this. The animals are our future and past, we should look after them by not doing things like this. But is it never too late.
The writer states that, "It would be as if you were vacuuming your living room, and I'm standing at the doorway with a bag of dust and a fan. You can constantly keep vacuuming, but you could never catch up." The problem is currently there is no one vacuuming at all. Meanwhile the dust bag and fan keep on getting bigger and bigger. Soon you'll be able to walk across the ocean.
Such a waste of reading this article. We all know the hugh impact that these garbage patches have on marine life, and all they can come up with is trying to make people not litter. Really rediculous. So what about the gabage in the oceans now, leave it there....when so many people have said they would fund projects! This idea of convincing people not to litter is so ubsurd, because changing the mindset of illiterate people is hopeless. I live in Trinidad and I have to admit, we probaby contribute a great deal of garbage to the oceans. Our people seem to have no regard or care for the environment and litter everywhere. WE have been TRYING for years to change that mindset of the people and believe me -IT IS A LOST CAUSE!
Similarly for years environmentalist have lobbied for countries and people to lower green house gases and yes a lot of effot has been put into it. BUT not nearly enough to have any impact! The race to save this planet is too late until the powers to be have the guts to enact laws that really could change the way we live. Until people realize that the high incidence of Cancer, Diabetes and other disease is as a result of their total disregard for the environment...nothing changes. On the brighter side the younger generation seem to have a better appreciation for the environment and hopefully they wont allow themselves to drown in garbage!
I live in Austin, TX and we implemented a 2013 total bag ban on plastic bag usage in retail outlets despite a few of our state's "conflicted" (R-TX) senators stating it as a violation of the "Texas Health and Safety Code". Even the Texas Retailers Association filed a lawsuit against the city of Austin stating that the ban on plastic was doing more bad than good. The case was later dropped when the City of Austin asked the Texas retailers Association to disclose the sales of plastic bags from its members. The case was IMMEDIATELY dropped. What a bunch of coward lobbyists.
I can tell you from living here my whole life, that our creeks are cleaner and our highways have never looked more pristine. The intrinsic influence of Bag bans makes me feel guilty every time I forget one as i walk up to the grocery store entrance until I remember that i can buy one for 25 or 50 cents at checkout. Which brings me to my next point...
The bag ban is an additional revenue stream for retail outlets. Do plastic bags get included in your receipt for groceries? An obvious No... But your grocer has to make a business to business volume purchase of plastic bags. With a bagban, you as the consumer must remember to bring your bag or purchase a new one at the counter for a mere 50 cents. This isn't required, but who is going to go put all their groceries back in the aisles and drive back home to get their renewable bags? With a bag ban, the retail outlets save money by making no plastic bag order, a commodity whose price is dependent on rising price of oil from which the plastic bag is derived. Sounds like a winner for the retailerand the consumer.
I don't understand (apart from being lightweight, etc, etc) how our society has become so plastic-dependent in a "mere" 100 years. Before that, there were other options for many things now plasticized. Apart from being made by a raw material which is not endless (crude oil) it is also harmful (leeching plastics, BPA etc) in a way we don't even fully understand yet.
Taking into account that the material plastic is made from is limited, it should rather be far more expensive rather than being the cheaper option, maybe that would be a deterrent or an incentive to find "greener"/less/no packaging options. (compared to alternative fuelling R&D in the automotive industry, I get the impression the packaging/plastics market is not trying to find alternatives)
Have you ever looked at the plastic waste generated during a "normal" shopping trip (even without buying bottled drinks)? The blog "zero waste home" was an enlightenment for me, as well as "my plastic free life". There are people out there who care. Everybody should try their best.
@Salvatore Cento OK, how are you going to ensure that indigenous people of the world follow that directive/suggestion?
Lets have some discussion on this to see if we can arrive at a solution that is feasible. firstly consider that the plastic in the oceans are doubling every 10 years.
That means that if there is 250,000,000 tonnes in the oceans now there will be 500,000,000 tonnes in 2024. What are we going to do with 500,000,000 tonnes? remember that this is only about 2.5 % of the plastic produced world wide.
Are we poisoning our great grandchildren?
My grandchildren will be able to vote!!
The system works perfectly in e.g. Finland, the collector machines even collect bottles and cans without return deposit, everything goes the same way. I'm not aware that the breweries have any special problems, I believe the system works well for them too.
@Andrea Petryshyn how fast HUMAN, its a We effort now.... and these children will be yes shocked and somewhat appalled, if not dumb downed, by then... Reference the movie "Idiocracy" to give your statement and my comment, some validity and truth to the possibilities of what may unfold for the future of humanity.. Save yourself and Be hemp, y'all.. Thank you... #MadefromHemp
@fred heidt My thoughts exactly, however it all comes down to cost and how to maintain profit. No company wants to lose money for any reason. The selfishness of it is terrible in my opinion, but it's the reality.
@Elise Amiot Perhaps to ram them down their throat may be more impactful!
ExxonMobil used harmful chemicals to hide the oil not clean it up, on top of that all the people who were spraying these chemicals got sick, burns to there skin, and still have problems to this day, following big business is what got us here in the first place. There is a documentary on BP that's address exxon as well. Clean up the floating debris and start swiping the ocean floor with net's, gonna take 10 to 20 years but at least it would give or earth a chance to survive.
@Michelle W. I totally agree about using single use plastics and education. Another action is to make requests. We love this burger place its locally owned so they use grass fed beef and do other things too. When we needed take out it was plastic containers. It drove us nuts. We got why they used them because of the liquid & price. We spoke to the owner about it. He said it would be more expensive to have something that was paper or eco friendly. We said pass on the extra 8 cents or 1 because he had the exact numbers and they also used a plastic bag. Next time we got takeout.. A new eco friendly paper container and a paper bag. Just letting them know what you want and will be willing to pay extra or whatever. We are now going to make this request at all places we eat so they know. I hate straws or any single use. I do my best to not use it. Traveling is the hardest when you need a bar or something because you ran out of food or need something you can carry around. I have food allergies but overall we have educated people and are taking action. I think one of the biggest is water but if you start the conversation on how that can affect health. It makes a world of difference..
@Michele Seklecki You might want to follow us on Facebook at Geology In The Public Interest
@Sandra D'Andrade Well said and agreed, its everywhere already, the point of no return has been passed, we are eating(fish come from the sea right), living, breathing, drinking and bathing in a big sea of plastic, on and off shore.. Why, is this so..? Well, yes its a "PEOPLE PROBLEM," thats only obvious... Too many takers, few givers... We humans were hard wired, per say, to be selfish egomaniac driven consumers.. ie. takers
Read the book: "Ishmael" for a in-depth understanding of this point..
Btw, "The only thing, that remains the same, is CHANGE..." So, yes, Always Look On the BRIGHT side of Life, which the hope is on the #hemp side.. (Fact: hemp was consumed(80% of the diet was from hemp) and used by every woman and man and child on earth, before the last 100 years..)
Disclaimer: Comments, give way to having no offense or disrespect to anyone..
@Sandra D'Andrade its a good thing we have people who really care about this planet.. because if it were up to you- we would all be screwed. how about we throw our trash in your yard and see how you like it? talk about selfish and saying saving the world is a lost cause. you need to find god and realize the negativity you are vibing ... you are a lost cause
@Constance Gabriel-Haevecker Fact: hemp was consumed(80% of the staple diet was from hemp) and used by every woman and man and child on earth, before the last 100 years, that you speak of...
No packaging options, I agree... or #UseLess or #UseNothing or #usehemp..
P.S. Awareness is initially nice to have to recognize a problem first of all. But without actions it's not worth anything.
Sadly, most people only do the talking. I live in a society, where this plastic trash is generated, which ends up in our oceans or in dumpsters of poorer countries where people have to make a living from it under hazardous conditions.
I am ashamed and feel guilty about that, even though I try my best.
Unfortunately, the time for baby steps is running out. If I could do it, I would make everybody take action NOW.
@Mark Leszczyszak @fred heidt Agreed... Moreover, "The Selflessness" of using/consuming less or nothing at all, in my opinion is best suited for humanity.. Or what would be this realities, better solution... #UseLess... Thank you..
Selfishness? No business is in business to lose money. Would you work for free or at a loss? Responsible, educated population is the answer. There is so much more cost to using glass bottles than plastic bottles. Manufacturing. transportation, cleaning and refilling. Recycling, mandated in communities, is a better solution.
Feed the World
National Geographic explores how we can feed the growing population without overwhelming the planet in our food series.
Latest Photo Galleries
Summer’s almost gone, but beaches are forever.
The Portuguese man-of-war is infamous for its painful sting, but one photographer finds the beauty inside this animal's dangerous embrace.