Mayday Cleaning up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch

Mayday! Cleaning up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch

With recent efforts to clean up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch running into problems, there is a renewed debate about whether we should instead focus on preventing plastic from entering our oceans in the first place.

Text: Alex Stevens Photo: 123RF

On the surface, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch doesn’t look like a trash island, but the picture is deceptive. When Marcus Eriksen, an environmental scientist from the United States, is out in the open ocean, he says he might at first only see a fishing buoy or a piece of tangled rope float by. But a closer look would reveal more.

“You won’t see much until you drag your net and get a handful of plastic confetti. And that’s the majority of what is out there,” he says.

Eriksen is the Research Director of 5 Gyres Institute, which he co-founded to further explore ocean pollution and draw attention to it. As part of his studies into marine debris, he has often trawled the Pacific Ocean, pulling out fishing nets and buoys, ropes, buckets and detergent bottles lost by fishing fleets. Worryingly, he also discovers smaller pieces of litter – the remnants of what might have been plastic bags, bottles, straws and other consumer plastic coming from the coastline.

“That’s more problematic. They are easily ingested by marine organisms – and that’s the heart of the problem,” he says.

A Sisyphean task?

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is an accumulation of floating detritus, located in the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, between California and Hawaii. It contains an estimated 80,000 metric tonnes of plastic. And it is growing bigger with more and more garbage coming from the shores of North America and Asia, and the loss of trash from fishing and shipping fleets. Ocean currents bring debris into the gyre where it continues to fragment. The ‘patch’ has been known to scientists since the late 80s, but so far, there have been no efficient solutions to clean it up.

Many scientists are showing that the trash is coming ashore anyway. Eriksen points to a recent study by scientists monitoring floating debris from the 2011 Japanese tsunami, which washed an estimated 1000 fishing boats into the North Pacific. In 7 years, an estimated 90% have come ashore on their own.

The Ocean Cleanup, an ambitious Dutch project that has drawn USD 40 million in funding, is the latest attempt to clear this part of the Pacific Ocean using their clean-up system nicknamed ‘Wilson’. The device consists of a large ‘skirt’, a barrier that is intended to act as an artificial coastline and accumulate the floating plastic. Project founder, 24-year old Boyan Slat, and his team planned to use ocean currents and winds to gather the debris into this barrier. However, their most recent test in September 2018 ran into trouble when it turned out that Wilson was not able to hold the plastic it caught.

“One can do a lot of modelling and testing, but being actually at the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is the only real test,” said a spokesperson from the Ocean Cleanup.

The company released a statement analysing the possible reasons for the failure. It turned out that engineers had underestimated the velocity of winds in between waves and the current speed just below the water surface. As a result, the device was moving slower and the debris faster than predicted. Apart from that, the apparatus was damaged in the ocean. In spite of this, the Ocean Cleanup team remains optimistic and is preparing for a relaunch.

However, ocean scientists are more sceptical. “The idea that we can have some kind of device that would clean up the plastic from the oceans without affecting the wildlife living there is very challenging,” says Richard Thompson, professor at the School of Biological and Marine Sciences of the University of Plymouth.

This holds true for especially microplastic, particles less than 5 millimetres in size, that are likely to be extremely difficult to remove without affecting marine organisms.

The root of the problem

“The absolute priority has to be to stop plastic from entering the ocean in the first place,” says Thompson. “Unless we focus on this, we are condemning our children and our children’s children to cleaning it up.”

There is no single solution to this problem, as sources of plastic litter vary significantly. Thomson suggests that a lot could be achieved by industry doing a better job in considering the end-of-life use of single-use plastic products at the design stage, for example by ensuring they are widely recyclable and linking the design of plastic products to better waste management.  

When it comes to cleaning up, Thompson says he sees more benefit in “low-tech, low-cost measures such as beach cleaning activity by citizens, which also help directly raise awareness.”

For Wärtsilä, this combination of awareness driving potential and practical impact on the environment was the reason to start a partnership with the Seabin project back in 2017.

Seabin is a floating garbage bin that can be installed in marinas, yacht clubs and ports. When Wärtsilä first joined forces with the Seabin project, it was still in its pilot stage, more or less developed and assembled by hand in a garage. However, over the next couple of years, the pilot evolved and entered mass-production phase with demand coming in from around the globe. All in all, 719 Seabins have been installed worldwide so far, with Wärtsilä having sponsored the bins in Helsinki, Turku, Genoa, Oslo, Singapore and many other cities.

“The most important thing about the Seabin project is that it drives awareness about plastic pollution. The impact of each device is vastly wider than the litter collected,” says Atte Palomäki, Executive Vice President – Communications, Branding & Marketing and member of the Board of Management at Wärtsilä.

“The Seabin project aims to educate children and youth, and this can be done in a very concrete way. When a school gets an opportunity to empty the Seabin, examine its catch and talk about plastic waste, it certainly resonates with the students. When it is so tangible, it has more of an impact than simply reading from a book,” he adds.

“It reminds us that each one of us has to take responsibility for the cleanliness of the marine environment.”

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