A 1988 study by researchers in Alaska predicted that marine debris would accumulate in a particular region of the Pacific Ocean due to the behavior of oceanic currents. Their prediction has proven accurate and today this significant and growing concentration of floating, mostly plastic, trash is known as the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch”. This NASA video details how the accumulation has occurred over time. The exact size and depth of the patch is difficult to discern due to changing currents, degradation of the debris, and the fact that much of the plastic is slightly submerged and not reliably visible by satellite. The extent of the patch has been estimated to fluctuate from the size of Texas to twice the area of the continental United States depending on the time of year. Oceanic garbage patches have emerged at five different locations across the world’s oceans and they pose an environmental risk as they degrade, sink, and enter the marine food chain.
The Midway atoll is located within the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and was the site of a comprehensive study on the impact of garbage on the wildlife of the atoll. Twenty tons of trash, mostly plastic, was found on shore and nearly all of the island’s native albatross population had plastic within their digestive systems. A third of albatross young were estimated to have perished from complications associated with plastic consumption. The Midway atoll provides a specific example of the environmental damages from plastic pollution. Those less concerned with the Pacific Garbage Patch may resort to the “out of sight, out of mind” philosophy or they may lack concern for a rare species of bird on a remote island in the pacific. Research on the movement of plastic and plastic byproducts through the marine food chain, however, indicates that the issue of oceanic plastic refuse cannot be viewed in isolation. Dangerous byproducts from the photodegredation of plastics include bisphenol A (BPA), PCB’s, and styrene derivatives that can make their way through the food chain back to humans, the original polluters. Efforts are underway to clean up the larger pieces of plastic before they deteriorate and enter the food chain.
Boyan Slat is a Dutch entrepreneur and founder of “The Ocean Cleanup”. He dropped out of school to pursue his life goal of cleaning up the world’s oceans using a novel technique for filtering out trash. His crowd funding campaign raised $2.2 million and continues to receive support from small donations and a few high profile backers such as salesforce.com CEO Marc Benioff. The first survey expedition of The Ocean Cleanup to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch was completed in Fall 2015, making the targeted date for full-time operation to begin around 2020. If successful in the Pacific, Slat would like to pursue cleanup actions in all five major oceanic garbage patches.
Physically removing plastic from these oceanic garbage patches is one significant step toward addressing the symptoms of this complex environmental issue. Discussion of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch would be remiss without acknowledging the overproduction, consumption, and subsequent improper disposal of plastic trash before it has a chance to enter the ocean. As with most complex environmental challenges, the issue at hand is actually a pipeline of problems; in this case starting with the extraction of oil for plastic production and ending with plastic floating in the ocean. The best solution requires a systems approach to address each step of the problematic pipeline. Only then can the tide be turned against an ever-growing stream of trash entering the world’s oceans.
Crowdfunding sites like IndieGoGo’s environmental projects page offer convenient platforms to support environmental projects. The Ocean Cleanup wouldn’t exist without donations from an estimated 38,000 people and the ongoing support from those who are passionate about the health of our world’s oceans.