Climate Action

Filtering Out Our Plastic Patchwork Quilt in the Pacific

One of the biggest environmental challenges we face is how to clean up the largest garbage dump in the world. And in case that’s not difficult enough, let’s remember that this dump is in the ocean. The “Pacific Garbage Patch” is an area of debris roughly the size of Texas in the North Pacific filled with plastics and toxic chemicals slowly breaking down or finding their way into the fish we eat. However, the Pacific Garbage Patch is a misnomer. Rather than being an ‘island’ of garbage like a maritime landfill, what humans have created with our lost trash is more or less a fluctuating ‘soup’ of plastic particles riding out the oceanic currents. Making clean up seem even more impossible, the Pacific Garbage Patch is merely the largest of these collections floating throughout world’s great oceans, with the exception of the Arctic—that’s the only good news. Only some of the plastic is visible or floating on the surface. Much of the plastic in these patches is too small to see with the naked eye or hiding in the upper layers of the ocean. The horrifying level of debris only becomes apparent when a trawling or research vessel in this area hauls up a sample. Cleaning these messes up is no easy task.  It could take years and is not as simple as filtering out the plastic with nets or traditional filtration methods. These techniques would likely destroy fish and phytoplankton, literally throwing the baby out with the bathwater and killing the very species we are trying to protect. We’ve got to clean it up, but what are our options? One innovative idea is a prototype designed by Norton Smith back in 2009 called “the Beach”, a device which attempts to mimic the way debris washes up ashore on a gentle incline and utilizes energy from wave energy. However, to effectively clean up the ocean, not only would millions of these need to be deployed but also we would need to stop the steady influx of garbage which continues to pour from our societies into the ocean. Stopping garbage input at the intersection between land and sea is still a problem which isn’t being effectively addressed. Another, more large-scale project which similarly attempts to use the ocean’s own power was designed in 2012 by Boyan Slat, an engineering student from the Netherlands. His “passive cleanup project”, involves floating barriers that allow the ocean’s currents to move through them while filtering out plastic waste. These barriers are specifically designed to collect plastics of different sizes yet allow marine life to swim by unharmed, at least in theory. What started as a school science project has now evolved into the generously funded Ocean Cleanup Project foundation. At just 20 years old, Slat’s Ocean Cleanup Array is the first proposed solution to the patch that has been developed, funded and tested to a significant extent. The $ 2.2 million dollars raised by the Ocean Cleanup Project foundation have made it possible to carry out experiments and create models of his technology. Slat has also gathered a team of 100 volunteers and professionals to help him bring his ideas to fruition. Developing an international coalition to address this problem will be crucial in the coming years. Due to the costs associated with improving the state of the garbage patch and the destroyed ecosystems, thus far the international community has taken little initiative to find a solution.   Aaron Dorman and Sarah Miles, Interns