In 1997, oceanographer and boat captain Charles Moore made a shocking discovery. After deciding to cut through the North Pacific Gyre on his way back to California from Hawaii, Moore gazed into the ocean and, instead of pristine waters, found a vast vortex of floating plastic debris.
Moore later described the experience in an article for National History magazine. ‘I was confronted, as far as the eye could see, with the sight of plastic. It seemed unbelievable, but I never found a clear spot. In the week it took to cross the subtropical high, no matter what time of day I looked, plastic debris was floating everywhere: bottles, bottle caps, wrappers, fragments.’
Today this phenomenon has become known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, although it is apparently two huge ‘patches’ linked together by the North Pacific Subtropical Convergence Zone — an area where warm South Pacific and cooler Artic waters meet.
Research since 1997 has also tracked the growth of these patchesand the incredible damage they do to marine life.
While there is plenty of solid waste — plastic bottles, styrofoam cups, abandoned fishing nets, drums of toxic chemicals — much of this vortex of rubbish consists of a cloudy soup of microplastics.
When Moore surveyed the microplastics in the patch in 1999, he found that plastic outweighed zooplankton by a factor of 6:1. More shockingly, this ratio only improved to 5:2 in a 2002 study elsewhere in the ocean.
When you start to appreciate the scale of this marine pollution, it explains why so many marine animals are being found with stomachs full of plastic.
Indeed, we may only be seeing the tip of the iceberg.
The sheer size of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and the wider problem that it represents is utterly overwhelming, which is why it was so exciting to hear the people at the Ocean Cleanup Foundation recently announce that their ocean clean-up machine is now working and has been able to collect microplastic particles as small as 1mm in diameter, in addition to larger debris.
Boyan Slat is the founder and CEO of the Ocean Cleanup Foundation. He was just 18 when he pitched the idea of an ocean clean-up machine in a TED Talk that went viral.
We need more of this kind of audaciousness
While some have criticised his concept for promising too much and diverting money from other important projects, this latest success appears to indicate that his vision is achievable.
In fact, the team are now estimating that they will be able to significantly overdeliver on their earlier promises of removing 42 per cent of the debris over ten years.
In a time when bad news stories seem to abound, it is welcome news that someone’s audacious plan to tackle a seemingly insurmountable environmental problem is having such success. Of course, Slat’s clean-up project is just a drop in the ocean (if you’ll excuse the pun) in relation to fixing our global problem with plastic waste.
Collecting the worst of it from one patch in the Pacific is not going to resolve the fundamental issue that we are drowning in discarded plastic and it takes hundreds of years to break down. But what it does tell us is that it is worth dreaming big.
Moore, the man who first discovered the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, once claimed that cleaning it up would ‘bankrupt any country’ that tried it, but Slat decided to try anyway.
When confronting the scale of plastic pollution, we need more of this kind of audaciousness. And apparently there are some actions that will make a real difference.
We need businesses to move away from plastics wherever possible, and others to keep working to make plastics that are truly biodegradable or more recyclable. We also need better waste collection systems, everywhere in the world, to stop so much plastic from ending up in our water ways.
But at the end of the day, we individuals also need to avoid plastic where we can. We can at least do the basics: give up plastic bags, skip disposable water bottles, avoid plastic packaging, recycle where possible, and don’t litter.
None of us want an ocean full of plastic. Or a glass of water full of microplastics for that matter. The question is, what are we going to do about it?
Dr Cristy Clark is a lecturer at the Southern Cross University School of Law and Justice. Her research focuses on the intersection of human rights, neoliberalism, activism and the environment, and particularly on the human right to water.
La Croix International, October 26, 2019