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Clean ocean win shows it's worth dreaming big



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. 

Great Pacific Garbage PatchMoore 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 fact, the team are now estimating that they will be able to significantly overdeliver on their earlier promises of removing 42 per cent of the debris over ten years.

In a time when bad news stories seem to abound, it is welcome news that someone's audacious plan to tackle a seemingly insurmountable environmental problem is having such success. Of course, Slat's clean-up project is just a drop in the ocean (if you'll excuse the pun) in relation to fixing our global problem with plastic waste. Collecting the worst of it from one patch in the Pacific is not going to resolve the fundamental issue that we are drowning in discarded plastic and it takes hundreds of years to break down. But what it does tell us is that it is worth dreaming big.


"When confronting the scale of plastic pollution, we need more of this kind of audaciousness. And apparently there are some actions that will make a real difference."


Moore, the man who first discovered the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, once claimed that cleaning it up would 'bankrupt any country' that tried it, but Slat decided to try anyway. When confronting the scale of plastic pollution, we need more of this kind of audaciousness. And apparently there are some actions that will make a real difference. 

We need businesses to move away from plastics wherever possible, and others to keep working to make plastics that are truly biodegradable or more recyclable. We also need better waste collection systems, everywhere in the world, to stop so much plastic from ending up in our water ways. 

But at the end of the day, we individuals also need to avoid plastic where we can. We can at least do the basics: give up plastic bags, skip disposable water bottles, avoid plastic packaging, recycle where possible, and don't litter.

None of us want an ocean full of plastic. Or a glass of water full of microplastics for that matter. The question is, what are we going to do about it?



Cristy ClarkDr Cristy Clark is a lecturer at the Southern Cross University School of Law and Justice. Her research focuses on the intersection of human rights, neoliberalism, activism and the environment, and particularly on the human right to water.

Topic tags: Cristy Clark, waste, Great Pacific Garbage Patch



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Existing comments

I bought a metal water bottle today + one for my husband. No more plastic water bottles for us. It's a small step. Here's why the Pacific (and other oceans) are so precious: from "Facing the Pacific at Night" by Kevin Hart: "Driving east, in the darkness between two stars/Or between two thoughts, you reach the greatest ocean,/That cold expanse the rain can never net,/And driving east, you are a child again -/The web of names is brushed aside from things."

Pam | 24 October 2019  

Cristy, provided these garbage patches could be swept up or bucket dredged up into some container ships or huge ore carriers, all that plastic flotsam and jetsam can now be industrially microwaved into biochar. "For plants that require high potash and elevated pH, biochar can be used as a soil amendment to improve yield. Biochar can improve water quality, reduce soil emissions of greenhouse gases, reduce nutrient leaching, reduce soil acidity, and reduce irrigation and fertilizer requirements." Wikipedia. This could become a new recycling business if someone had the initiative and capital.

francis Armstrong | 25 October 2019  

People complain about paying $1.75 per litre for petrol in Sydney this week and then dash off to the supermarket to snap up a few bottles of treated water, which is available free in every tap in the country, at the "special" price of $2.75 per litre. Gotta give it to big business genius - they sure know how to tap into human inanity!

john frawley | 25 October 2019  

Hooray! At last an article that addresses the real problem of plastic pollution in the oceans. In Boyan Slat's words “Microplastics make up 94 percent of an estimated 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic in the patch. But that only amounts to eight percent of the total tonnage. As it turns out, of the 79,000 metric tons of plastic in the patch, most of it is abandoned fishing gear—not plastic bottles or packaging drawing headlines today”. Banning plastic shopping bags was merely a costly and inconvenient feel-good folly to give the appearance of doing something by those who are incapable or unprepared to tackle the real issue.

Tony Martin | 27 October 2019