An important issue that has been receiving more and more attention lately is the problem known as “The Great Pacific Garbage Patch”, a collection of discarded plastic which the ocean currents have concentrated in one area. Some estimates place the size of this patch as twice the size of the state of Texas! While a percentage of this floating plastic morass consists of fishing nets and plastic containers, a large amount of it is what is called micro plastics. Micro plastics are created when the larger items, exposed to heat and sunlight, break down. Many plastics don’t biodegrade but do photodegrade! These micro plastics can absorb and carry organic contaminants and hormone disrupting compounds.
To many fish and ocean life these micro plastics resemble plankton, their main food source. They are ingesting these microbeads and all the toxics they contain. Of course, bigger fish eat these small plankton eaters and so on up the food chain. Of course, the higher up the food chain we go, the more concentrated the micro plastics and toxins may be and remember, the top of the food chain is us!
Cleaning up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch using the conventional methods of vessels and nets, would be nearly impossible and take many, many years. This problem is not isolated to the Pacific Ocean or this one gyre, it is simply the largest and best known of the 5 currently existing in the oceans.
The Ocean Cleanup, a group in the Netherlands headed by the 22 year-old Dutch inventor Boyan Slat, has developed a passive system which they predict will remove half the garbage in 5 years. Pictured above, it consists of a 1 – 2 km long high density polyethylene pipe with a solid, drop down, U-shaped screen designed to capture large pieces of plastic such as ghost nets as well as small plastic down to 1 cm in size.
“To catch the plastic, act like the plastic.”
This system will have a sea anchor suspended in a deeper, slower moving water layer, allowing it to move with the currents more slowly that the plastic so the plastic will accumulate on the “U” shaped barrier. The currents will move this device into the vortex with the plastic so it can be more effective. No external energy or power will be required.
Once the buffer is full, the accumulated plastics will be picked up and taken back to land for processing, recycling and resale. The goal is to one day make the whole process self-supporting with the sales of this re-cycled plastic paying for additional systems. A pilot of this system is set to be deployed in the North Pacific later this year with the first operational system being launched in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch by mid-2018.
Removing the existing plastic is all well and good but we need to eliminate the plastic entering the ocean in the first place. Many countries are now considering placing refundable deposits on plastic bottles and the use of plastic bags is being phased out in many places and even banned in others. There are ways we all can help with this problem.
- Reduce your use of single use plastics
- Participate in a beach or river clean-up
- Support the adoption on bans in your community
- Avoid products like face scrubs and body washes containing microbeads
- Use reusable food containers to store leftovers rather than disposable plastic wraps
- Waxed paper instead of sandwich bags
Local projects miles inland can help! Cleaning up plastic from our beaches and rivers stops it from ever reaching the ocean. Reducing the plastic entering our landfills keeps it out of the water table.
The ocean will never be cleaned up if we keep throwing in more plastic!