Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site


Clean ocean win shows it's worth dreaming big

  • 24 October 2019


In 1997, oceanographer and boat captain Charles Moore made a shocking discovery. After deciding to cut through the North Pacific Gyre on his way back to California from Hawaii, Moore gazed into the ocean and, instead of pristine waters, found a vast vortex of floating plastic debris. 

Moore later described the experience in an article for National History magazine. 'I was confronted, as far as the eye could see, with the sight of plastic. It seemed unbelievable, but I never found a clear spot. In the week it took to cross the subtropical high, no matter what time of day I looked, plastic debris was floating everywhere: bottles, bottle caps, wrappers, fragments.'

Today this phenomenon has become known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, although it is apparently two huge 'patches' linked together by the North Pacific Subtropical Convergence Zone — an area where warm South Pacific and cooler Artic waters meet. Research since 1997 has also tracked the growth of these patches and the incredible damage they do to marine life. While there is plenty of solid waste — plastic bottles, styrofoam cups, abandoned fishing nets, drums of toxic chemicals — much of this vortex of rubbish consists of a cloudy soup of microplastics.

When Moore surveyed the microplastics in the patch in 1999, he found that plastic outweighed zooplankton by a factor of 6:1. More shockingly, this ratio only improved to 5:2 in a 2002 study elsewhere in the ocean. When you start to appreciate the scale of this marine pollution, it explains why so many marine animals are being found with stomachs full of plastic. Indeed, we may only be seeing the tip of the iceberg.  

The sheer size of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and the wider problem that it represents is utterly overwhelming, which is why it was so exciting to hear the people at the Ocean Cleanup Foundation recently announce that their ocean clean-up machine is now working and has been able to collect microplastic particles as small as 1mm in diameter, in addition to larger debris.

Boyan Slat is the founder and CEO of the Ocean Cleanup Foundation. He was just 18 when he pitched the idea of an ocean clean-up machine in a TED Talk that went viral. While some have criticised his concept for promising too much and diverting money from other important projects, this latest success appears to indicate that his vision is achievable. In