Way out in the Pacific Ocean is an area that sailors have long avoided as it’s often without any wind. They call it the doldrums. It’s here that we find the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, an enormous floating mass of plastic.
A Californian sailor discovered the Patch in 1997, a surfer and volunteer environmentalist named Charles Moore. Heading home from a sailing race in Hawaii, he decided to turn on the engine and take a shortcut across the edge of the North Pacific Ocean.
‘It took us a week to get across and there was always some plastic thing bobbing by,’ says Moore. ‘Bottle caps, toothbrushes, styrofoam cups, detergent bottles, pieces of polystyrene packaging and plastic bags. Half of it was just little chips that we couldn’t identify. It wasn’t a revelation so much as a gradual sinking feeling that something was terribly wrong here. Two years later I went back with a fine-mesh net, and that was the real mind-boggling discovery.’
Rather than being a solid mass of plastic as is often imagined, the Patch is more like a marine soup with plastic as the main ingredient. Floating beneath the surface of the water to a depth of about 10 metres are multitudes of plastic pieces, some large enough to hold, others merely flecks and particles almost too small to see.
While this is shocking enough, the worst was yet to come: ‘We found six times more plastic than zooplankton (the dominant life form), and this was just colossal,’ said Moore. ‘No one had any idea this was happening, or what it might mean for marine ecosystems, or even where all this stuff was coming from.’
More research showed that the size of the Patch is somewhere between the size of the state of New South Wales, to double the size of Queensland, or even larger than Australia.
Although poorly understood by scientists, the Patch is caused by our love of plastic. And it’s not ocean going vessels that are to blame for all this plastic: scientists have concluded that 80% of marine plastic is from land. Wind blows plastic rubbish out of littered streets and landfills, and from trucks and trains on their way to landfills. It gets into rivers, streams and storm drains and then gets carried by tides and currents out to sea. Litter dropped by people at the beach is also a major source.
Plastic does not break down and go away. It just breaks up into smaller and smaller pieces. These small pieces look like food to the jellyfish. The jellyfish eat it and this is how the plastic enters the ocean food chain. Larger pieces of plastic get mistaken for food by seabirds, fish and turtles. Either way, this plastic is now well and truly a part of the marine food chain.
According to the United Nations Environment Program, plastic is killing a million seabirds a year, and 100,000 marine mammals and turtles. It kills by entanglement, most commonly in discarded synthetic fishing lines and nets. It kills by filling up stomachs leaving no room for real food.
Bottle caps, pocket combs, cigarette lighters, cotton bud shafts, toothbrushes, toys, syringes, straws and plastic shopping bags are routinely found in the stomachs of dead seabirds and turtles.
Look around you. Start counting things made of plastic. Don’t forget your buttons, the stretch in your underwear, the little caps on the end of your shoelaces. The stuff is everywhere and arguably forms the basis of modern consumer society. When we are finished with it we simply throw it away. But as we are now beginning to understand – there is no ‘away’.
It turns out the plastic itself is not the problem. It’s how we manage it after we have used it. How can we improve the way we manage plastic after we are finished with it?
‘What goes into the ocean goes into these animals and onto your dinner plate. It’s that simple.’
Marcus Eriksen, research director of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation
What can we do about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch?
Scientists have been thinking about ways we can clean up the plastic, but given the scale of the Patch this could to be very tricky and could take a long time. However, one young entrepreneur – Boyan Slat – has devised a system through which, driven by the ocean currents, the plastic would concentrate itself, reducing the theoretical cleanup time from millennia to mere years.
In June 2014, having led an international team of 100 scientists and engineers for a year, the concept turned out to be ‘likely a technically feasible and financially viable’ method to clean up half the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in 10 years’ time. A fundraising campaign has raised close to $2.2m, allowing the pilot phase to start. The first system is projected to be deployed in Japanese waters in 2016. Visit the Ocean Clean Up website to find out more.