In the North Pacific, there’s a vortex of trash roughly twice the size of Texas. Known as “The Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” this sluggish whirlpool grows daily – swelled by massive currents hauling literal tons of human waste.
The “Patch” is one of 11 naturally occurring global current systems called “gyres.” And it was only in the past three decades that researchers began to notice that these gyres were gradually collecting thousands of pounds of plastic debris. As of today, it has been estimated that at least 270,000 tons of plastic are floating among these systems in the ocean (not counting what’s on the seafloor).
It would be a wake-up call if it didn’t already sound so nightmarish; the image of gargantuan oceanic trash vortexes smacks of doomsday science fiction. But, as top gyre researcher Marcus Eriksen attests, this form of pollution poses a very real, very imminent threat. “Plastics are made with, and absorb, lots of chemicals that have ecotoxicological effects,” he says. Thus, given the scale of the gyre problem, we can expect those effects to be massive.
Furthermore, as Eriksen points out, cleaning up these gyres at sea is almost impossible, unless you’re willing to expend an extreme amount of time and resources. As plastic drifts out to sea, either from land-based sources (estimated 80%) or maritime sources (20%), it’s ground up into particles – abraded by the tide or chewed up by various marine life.
This runs counter to the common idea of plastics as non-degradable. The fact is that polymers do degrade, just not in a way that nourishes the food chain or that enriches the environment. When plastic degrades, it shreds into smaller and smaller pieces. “We have found that plastics fragment, releasing trillions of microplastic particles worldwide,” Eriksen explains. “Our recent Arctic expedition found clouds of microplastics in the most remote waters on the planet.”
Gathering tons of plastic out of swaths of open ocean is just as daunting as it sounds, and Eriksen argues that it’s ultimately unfeasible. “Ocean cleanup is both a poor cost/benefit proposal, and it distracts the public from the upstream solutions that prevent trash from going in the ocean in the first place,” he says.
One of these upstream solutions involves cutting ourselves off from the single-use plastics that, over the past 50 years, have become household staples (wrappings for individual slices in a package of Kraft cheese, for instance). These, along with the microbeads used in certain facial cleansers, are some of the most notorious culprits when it comes to pollution at sea. “The plastics industries have been very effective at making the world think that it’s consumers’ fault for littering, or the government’s fault for not managing waste,” Eriksen says. “They distract the conversation away from designing smart products and packaging recovery and recycling… The result is a trashed planet.”
Eriksen likens the gyres’ pollution to a kind of “plastic smog.” The ocean, like the atmosphere, he claims, is dynamic enough to heal itself if given the chance. “If we can stop doing harm, the ocean will wash [the plastic] ashore or sink it,” he says. “We used innovative technologies to create less-polluting cars, emission standards, better mufflers…The result was cleaner air. Do we have the courage to tell the plastic industry that poorly designed products that trash our oceans are unacceptable? I think we do.”