Taking on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch

Anna Ryu, Layout Editor

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1.6 million square kilometers of garbage and plastic are still growing in the Pacific Ocean. Located roughly halfway between Hawaii and California, it is the largest mass of accumulating plastic in any ocean of the entire world. This is literally just trash floating out there, twice the size of Texas, contributing to the declining health of our Earth. This huge area of suspended plastic blocks the sunlight that many algae and primary producers in the ocean need to survive. As the algae growth is disturbed, the entire rest of the food chain gets affected as well – this patch is hurting not only the poor plants, but it’s hurting anything that has to eat the algae, and anything that has to eat animals that eat the algae, and so on until everyone in the ocean has to suffer the consequences. Not to mention the countless animals that drown and suffocate from getting tangled in the plastic, or the animals that unknowingly consume and die from ingesting the toxic trash. You can basically see that this patch is a serious issue, and it deserves attention. But in more exciting news, as of September 8th this year, the Patch might be meeting its match – a gigantic floating barrier.

A non-profit organization called The Ocean Cleanup has taken a step forward in cleansing the oceans, developing a giant barrier reaching almost 2,000 feet long across the ocean surface and 10 feet deep. It was released into the ocean from California, and targets plastic that ranges from a few millimeters long to tens of meters. It is made up of “booms”, floating tubes, that all together snake together into one big line, and it collects trash which is later collected by people that come to gather and remove it. Then the trash will be brought back to land, where it will be sorted and recycled accordingly. The barrier is constantly monitored with sensors, satellites, and GPS systems, and it is powered with solar energy. Its creators even claim that the barrier will be able to remove 90 percent of plastic in the Patch by 2040. Wow. This sounds amazing.

But wait, not so fast – like all things in life, there are setbacks and imperfections to this idea. Some scientists and people do not support this project for a few reasons. First, the size of plastic that the barrier targets can, in fact, pick up plastic ranging from millimeters to meters. Unfortunately, a majority of plastic in the ocean is too small to be caught, and they are called microplastics. The project has not been able to design a barrier for these tiny bits of plastic. There is also the concern that the project draws attention from the actual cause of the issue – too much plastic waste is produced. By introducing this solution, it is important that the real enemy is not forgotten, and the only real solution for a healthier Earth is to stop using such enormous amounts of plastic in the first place.

Amidst these concerns, The Ocean Cleanup brought in an outside team of people that could help better analyze negative affects the project would have. In July, they published a report that said there were no major concerns, other than sea turtles that could get drawn into the system and eat the gathering trash.

However, physical oceanographer Kim Martini had presented other issues not covered by this report. One worry she had was how the system’s performance could be negatively affected over time as the sweeping net of the booms accumulated barnacles, algae, and other marine inhabitants. This would add drag to the barrier. There is also possibility for small new ecosystems to form in the gathered garbage, and the system may accidentally transport and attract new wildlife to the area. She also argues that there is no real proof that the system will actually collect as much plastic as it claims, as its recent release will be its first run. Environmental scientist Marcus Eriksen also shares these doubts, and does not believe the system will collect as much plastic as it claims. He says that plastic quickly leaves the ocean surface as it either makes its way to shores, sinks, or gets shredded. This means much of the plastic would be below the 10 foot deep reach of the barrier. Eriksen strongly advocates for using less plastic in the first place, instead of trying to clean it all up afterwards. Reducing production and use is the best solution.

Despite these numerous concerns, The Ocean Cleanup says it is just trying to cleanup what is at the surface. Their project will work towards addressing these issues, and they will continue to develop improvements. The project is widely supported and funded, as it is definitely helpful, and raises more awareness of the Patch. It’s good to have these innovations that remove plastic from nature. But still, experts, scientists, researchers, and everyone in between can agree on the real solution: reduce plastic use, and prevent it from entering the oceans and environments.