Positive developments in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch: Which initiatives show the most promise?

Marine plastic pollution is undoubtedly one of the gravest challenges the world is currently facing. Not only is it an eyesore, the impact of plastic on all forms of marine life is devastating, often resulting in death from ingestion or entanglement. Plastic in all shapes and forms can be found in all the world's oceans, from the surface waters, throughout the water column, to the seafloor. It litters once pristine beaches in far-flung places and has even been found in Arctic sea ice.

The largest known conglomeration of plastic in the ocean lies in an area referred to as the 'Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, also known as the Pacific trash vortex, is a vortex of marine debris which spans the Pacific Ocean between Hawaii, California, and Japan, and is surrounded by the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, which keeps the plastics contained within its boundary, preventing them from being dispersed further afield.

PLASTIKATLAS | Appenzeller/Hecher/Sack, CC BY 4.0

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch was discovered by Charles Moore, a racing yacht skipper who sailed into a mass of plastic soup while returning to California from Hawaii in 1997. This shock discovery spurned him to take action, and in 1999 he founded the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, whose goal is to research the extent of the problem, create awareness of the issue and push for policy change, in an effort to reduce our consumption and waste production at the source.

Yet, while education campaigns are essential for creating awareness to the extent of the problem if we hope to encourage people and companies to reduce the waste they generate, something also needs to be done to tackle the vast amount of plastic that is currently floating about in the ocean. And although this may seem like a dauntingly impossible task, there have been several promising initiatives that look hopeful.

The Ocean Cleanup

The Ocean Cleanup, a Dutch non-profit organization that hopes to remove 50% of plastic from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch within 5 years (and ultimately remove 90% of marine plastic) has been experimenting with innovative technologies to eradicate ocean plastic. After several hiccups with the initial prototype (System 001), on October 2nd, 2019, they announced that they had successfully developed a device (System 001/B) that is able to capture and collect plastic from the ocean. The device, the brainchild of Dutch inventor Boyan Slat, essentially consists of a giant floating boom that serves as a surface barrier, and a skirt that hangs down into the water below. The floating boom keeps that whole system afloat, while the skirt contains the plastic debris and channels it into the retention system, where it is trapped for removal. The system operates passively, carried by natural oceanic forces (wind, waves and currents), moving in the same direction as the plastic it is targeting. It is fitted with a submerged parachute anchor to slow it down so that it moves at a slower rate than the plastic it is targeting, which allows pieces of plastic to flow into it as they are driven by wind, waves and currents. The first haul of plastic removed from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch consisted of 60 x 1 cubic meter collection bags containing plastics ranging in size from tiny microplastics to large lengths of discarded fishing nets.

Source: The Ocean Cleanup

The Ocean Cleanup now plans on upscaling the current 525 foot (160 meter) test system to a 1,969 foot (600 meter) version (System 002), which it hopes to deploy in 2021, and ultimately upgrade to a fleet consisting of 60 devices.

As the Ocean Cleanup’s sole purpose of removing plastic from the ocean is to reduce its impact on marine life, the organization has taken measures to ensure the device does not negatively affect sea creatures. This includes extensive and ongoing monitoring and observations to determine whether the device has any environmental impacts, as well as having an independent Environmental Impact Assessment conducted, which found no major environmental risks.

Initial criticism of this system centered around the fact that it was pointless trying to remove plastic from the ocean while it continued to pour in via rivers mouths around the world. In an effort to 'close the tap', The Ocean Cleanup has developed The Interceptor, a 100% solar-powered floating barge that collects plastic via a conveyor belt system, cleaning up rivers to prevent plastic from entering the ocean in the first place.

Ocean Voyages Institute

Another leader in ocean clean-up is the Ocean Voyages Institute, a San Francisco based non-profit organization that was formed in 1979 to train aspiring young sailors, provide marine science education, and promote awareness to marine conservation issues. In 2009, the Ocean Voyages Institute launched Project Kaisei to raise awareness of the global problem of marine plastic debris and to make a concerted effort to clean up the oceans.

In June 2019, the Ocean Voyages Institute undertook the world's largest ocean clean up mission, removing 40 tons of plastic and discarded fishing gear, including a 5-ton ghost net, from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch during their 25 day mission. On 23 June 2020, their marine plastic recovery vessel, S/V KWAI, docked in Honolulu, Hawaii, with a record haul of marine trash consisting of 103 tons of fishing nets and plastic that was removed from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch during their 48-day expedition.

"We are utilizing proven nautical equipment to effectively clean-up the oceans while innovating with new technologies," says Mary Crowley, Founder and Executive Director of Ocean Voyages Institute. "Satellite technology played a key role in our recovery effort, offering an innovative solution to finding areas of dense plastic pollution."

The Ocean Voyages Institute, assisted by Andy Sybrandy from Pacific Gyre, Inc., have designed a system of satellite tracking beacons that are placed onto nets by volunteers on passing ships and yachts when they spot nets drifting in the ocean. The expedition crew then uses GPS trackers, assisted by drones and mast lookouts, to hone in on the deployed satellite beacons, helping them to find and recover the discarded nets, along with other plastic debris, which is then hauled aboard, placed in industrial bags and returned to shore for recycling.

"Our solutions are scalable, and next year, we could have three vessels operating in the North Pacific Gyre for three months all bringing in large cargos of debris," says Crowley. "We are aiming to expand to other parts of the world desperately needing efficient clean-up technologies."

Small Steps : Big Impact

These innovative and passionate initiatives are improving the health of our oceans and making them safer for marine life. Every piece of plastic or net removed will no longer pose a threat to a seabird, turtle, dolphin, whale or any other sea creature. The greatest outcome will be to eradicate plastic and trash from the oceans while at the same time preventing it from entering the ocean from rivers, ships and other sources. This clearly requires a multi-pronged approach that tackles the problem on all fronts, including: education and awareness; a shift in consumer choices; policy changes; stemming the tide of plastic flowing from rivers; and cleaning up plastic that's currently in the ocean.

As consumers, each and every one of us can actively make choices to reduce our consumption of plastic, especially single-use plastic items such as disposable shopping bags. Make a stand, by using your own reusable shopping bag/s or basket/s, choosing products that have minimal packaging, and opting for eco-friendly, biodegradable alternatives to plastic products (e.g. a bamboo toothbrush instead of a plastic one) wherever possible. By reducing our plastic consumption, we not only reduce the amount of plastic waste produced, but are also sending a very strong message to manufacturers and suppliers that this is where we prefer to spend our money. And as money often talks louder than words, with enough pressure from consumers, they will be forced to switch to more sustainable alternatives, which will ultimately be good for the planet.