Around 1.8 trillion bits of plastic waste have accumulated along the Pacific Ocean between Hawaii and California. (Satpalda Geospatial Service)
Imagine a giant aquatic vortex between Hawaii and California where converging ocean currents stir a toxic soup of discarded fishing nets, bottles, ropes, toilet seats, toothbrushes, bottle caps, bags and microplastics smaller than your pinky nail.
It’s out there, and it has a name: The Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
You could sail right through it without noticing you are in the midst of almost 2 trillion pieces of plastics churning between the surface and the bottom of the ocean. Most people can’t perceive how big it really is.
“People picture a landfill or a dump floating out in the middle of the ocean. That is just not accurate,” says Kara Lavender Law of theSea Education Association.
Think of it more as an accumulation of little things -- a balloon, a red rubber flip-flop, a coffee can -- far from where they belong. In 1972, the sight of these plastic objects in midocean surprised an observer enough that she wrote about it for the first time.
Elizabeth Venrick, a biologist at UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography, was aboard a research vessel that broke down in the Central North Pacific Ocean. “From this vantage point,” she wrote, “it was obvious that the sea surface is littered with a startling array of man-made objects, even 600 miles from the nearest major civilization (Hawaii) and outside the major shipping lanes.”
Venrick's log marked the first scientific record of the garbage accumulation in the Pacific Ocean. The journal Nature published a paper based on the researchers' observations in 1973.
At the time, Venrick and her colleagues dismissed the plastic as an aesthetic affront unlikely to enter the food chain and threaten human well-being.
But her article concluded with a warning and a reference to a nursery rhyme:
“Unless we find adequate means of disposing of our plastic products soon," she wrote, "we can anticipate that the ‘Wynken, Blynken and Nod’ of our children will set sail into a plastic sea, accompanied by all the ‘no-deposit, no-return’ products of our technology.”
Almost 50 years later, researchers continue to study what Venrick saw, and some ambitious enterprises are trying to apply technological solutions.
Desire to Clean
The Ocean Cleanup, a Netherlands-based nonprofit, has promised that its technology would remove half of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in just five years. From a list of donors that included Silicon Valley billionaires Peter Thiel and Marc Benioff, the organization raised $40 million.
Last year, it launched a giant U-shaped barrier on the San Francisco Bay. The structure is supposed to function like a coastline that collects plastic from the Pacific Ocean. In a couple of months, a 59-foot end-section fell off and the system returned to land for repairs. The organization relaunched it in June.
International media have been paying attention to cleanup efforts. and to the growing realization that ocean plastics are an ugly, harmful and potentially toxic pollution problem for marine wildlife, one that’s expensive, and maybe impossible, to solve. Some environmentalists wonder if it's even possible to clean up the Great Pacific Patch.
“The goal isn't to get everything,” explained Mary Crowley, founder and director of the Sausalito-basedOcean Voyages Institute. “I think that is an unrealistic goal. But I think we can help make the ocean a healthier habitat for all the life within it.”
Earlier this year, with the help of satellite-based GPS trackers, the Institute extracted 40 tons of “ghost” fishing nets and other plastics from the North Pacific garbage patch. The expedition’s haul accounted for less than 0.1% of the abandoned nets scientists believe are still in the Pacific.
Start Near the Shore
There are no cost-effective fixes for the offshore trash problem. It’ll take time, money, political will and technologies that might not exist yet to collect all the microplastics from the vast, constantly moving ocean.
One ocean expert, Sherry Lippiatt with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Marine Debris Program, offers an idea of how to get our heads around this. “If you walk into a bathroom and the toilet is overflowing, would you grab a mop or turn off the water at the source?”
To approach this problem at its source, her program makes it a priority to remove debris near the ocean shore.
NOAA has funded a volunteer-based beach cleanup that’s cleared over two tons of debris and lost fishing gear from the Channel Islands. It’s also paying for Surfrider San Francisco’s Hold on to Your Butt program aimed at changing smokers’ habits on and around beaches. On Aug. 15, NOAA announced $2.7 million in grants for onshore marine debris removal and research.
“It’s easier to collect a floating bottle in the harbor than it is – some number of years later - to try to pick up 5,000 pieces of broken bottles, distributed over hundreds of square kilometers in the middle of the ocean,” says the Sea Education Association’s Kara Lavender Law.
Experts like her remind us that the enormity of the problem is no excuse for inaction. Consumers can choose to recycle, refill and reduce the amount of plastic we use and throw away. “The convenience lifestyle [of single use plastic] is not essential,” says Law.
The idea is to learn from what people did decades before they relied on plastic. In the 1920s, Americans routinely refilled the glass and metal containers that held their milk and motor oil.
In an effort to reboot this idea, the recycling companyTerraCycle has established a new shopping service called Loop.
“You can now access your favorite brands, from your Häagen-Dazs ice cream to Tide laundry detergent, in durable refillable packages,” said TerraCycle CEO Tom Szkay. Next year, his company plans to launch Loop reusable containers in California, Canada, Germany, Japan and Australia. He says he hopes people will endorse these products with their wallets and a commitment to reduce and eliminate plastic waste.
State lawmakers are trying to play catch-up by introducing bills that would phase out the sale and distribution of plastics and require a minimum recycled content level in plastic bottles. Each of these bills passed the house that introduced them and await further consideration.
Get the best of KQED’s science coverage in your inbox weekly.