Over the past few years, the world has been awakened to the fact that there are gigantic swirling masses of trash floating in our oceans, 90 percent of which is plastic (source). Environmental proponents, scientists, policy makers, journalists, and “solution designers” have been chewing on the issue of waste – plastics in particular- for decades. But, as they discover and attempt to address the “gyres,” it seems they’ve all but bitten off more than they can chew.
Meanwhile, the world is feeding these ever-growing floating garbage heaps. According to Plastics News, the per capita consumption of plastics has risen dramatically in every corner of the globe. From 2001 to 2010, in North America alone, plastic consumption per person on average rose 46 percent to a staggering 326 pounds annually. If we’re only talking about the approximate 314 million Americans tossing out the trash, that adds up to more than 50 million tons of plastic waste every year. There’s obviously room for debate around that number, but the fact remains that humans are trashing the earth like a rockstar at the Ritz.
So, where does it all go? According to the EPA, “Only 8 percent of the total plastic waste generated in 2011 was recovered for recycling.” Some plastics do manage to get repurposed, but about half of the waste is buried in landfills. The remainder? Researchers at 5gyers.org suggest that what is unaccounted for is sadly “lost in the environment, where it ultimately washes out to sea.”
What’s In A Gyre?
The seven seas are continuously cycling incomprehensible amounts of water through the hemispheres, creating currents that naturally form continent-sized whirlpools called gyres. Five major gyres have been discovered, and their currents are attracting millions of tons of plastic waste.
The gyre getting the most attention exists in the Pacific Ocean. The North Pacific Subtropical Gyre is roughly twice the size of the U.S., and hosts what many claim to be the largest mass of trash on Earth.
What’s even more horrendous, is that what floats is only a fraction – 30%, according to Greenpeace- of the plastic pollution that exists in the oceans. The other 70% sinks, damaging life on the seafloor.
Whale, sea turtle, and fish species have all been found with plastic in or around their bodies, which can lead to internal blockages, dehydration, starvation, and death. Plastics in the ocean absorb waterborne contaminants, also known as Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs), in high concentrations. Now, scientists are studying whether or not these POPs are transferring into the tissues of the marine organisms that consume the plastics by mistake. This raises the question of whether these harmful chemicals may be working their way up the food chain to the humans who started the vicious cycle in the first place.
Is There A Solution?
What’s being done about this, you ask? As to be expected, researchers and engineers have been trying to figure out a feasible way to clean up the gyres for years now. And, if you’re an avid reader of the internet’s eco publications, you’ve no doubt seen the latest cleanup design proposal.
Boyan Slat, a 19-year-old boy-genius from the Netherlands has dreamed up a machine that he says will have the capability to extract 7,250,000,000 KG (that’s nearly 16 billion pounds) of plastic from the oceans in just 5 years per gyre. That may seem like a pipe dream, but if you take a moment to watch his TEDx speech, you might just be convinced.
Essentially, Slat is imagining a manta-ray-shaped platform with long booms extending outward. The booms will guide the trash in toward the platform where filters will be put in place to save any living organisms before the junk is processed. He says his design will cut costs by being anchored to the seafloor (avoiding the cost of manning the vessel), and being powered by solar and wave energy. When all is said and done, Slat suggests that selling the plastics collected will actually make this project profitable to boot. How can you argue with that?
A Downpour On The Parade
Well, 5Gyres.org policy director Stiv Wilson certainly has some arguments regarding Slat’s proposal. First and foremost, Wilson complains that Slat and many other solution designers have never seen the gyres up close and personal. And, If they were to actually be in the presence of the gargantuan fields of garbage (and survive the treacherous voyage just to get to them) they wouldn’t be so sure about any solution.
Among other debunkings, Wilson asserts that Slat’s plan fails to address the amounts of plastic that have sunk below the surface; and that the platform wouldn’t last in the elements, citing violent weather patterns and superspeed corrosion caused by the almost immediate inhabitation of birds and other sea life. He compares the future of this platform to the short life of one particular floating wind turbine, which was expected to survive for 100 years two miles of the coast of Oregon, but sank after just a few months due to harsh conditions.
Wilson also said that the plastics collected by this platform would be no hot commodity, reminding readers that years in the sun and seawater break down the plastic’s polymer bonds, ridding them of any value in terms of recycling.
And, according to Wilson, there’s no possible way Slat’s platform could be anchored to the seafloor 4,000 feet below (the average depth of the open ocean) as no anchor has reached depths beyond 2,000 feet.
Well, so much for that.
In response to media scrutiny, Slat added this statement to his website: “we had and have no intention of presenting a concept as a feasible solution while still being in investigative phase.”
So, now that the next best bubble seems all but burst, where does an ocean pollution proponent go from here? Nowhere fast. It seems all we can do is reign in our consumption (and irresponsible forms of disposal), urge manufacturers to use less harmful materials, and let the gyres clean themselves. Research has shown that the centrifugal forces of the gyres cast out as much as half of the heap’s trash with each orbit, sending bits of waste into ocean currents which will either carry it to another gyre or wash it up on beaches.
So basically, beach cleanup is gyre cleanup, and while it may only be a drop in the bucket it’s the only cleanup solution that’s actually doable, so far.
Sara Thompson has published numerous articles about environmental issues, green building, and energy efficiency. This artcle was written in collaboration with Gresham Sanitary Service, a Portland, Oregon area waste and recycling collector.