Over the next few years you are going to hear a lot of claims about programs to clean up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The floating island of plastic garbage twice the size of Texas. The trash patch. The area Captain Charles Moore discovered ten years ago. Don’t be fooled!
The Pacific Garbage Patch is not an island.
First of all, it’s a misnomer to call it an island. “Island” implies something floating on top of the water; big pieces of trash you could scoop up and recycle. Unfortunately, it’s worse. The plastic in the ocean breaks down over time into smaller and smaller pieces. While it doesn’t biodegrade, it “photodegrades,” meaning the sun breaks it down but it never really goes away. These tiny pieces have been found throughout the water column and are all mixed in with the plankton, the bottom of the food chain, a crucial component of life on earth. How can we clean that up?
There are several ocean gyres full of plastic.
The problem is even bigger than cleaning up the North Pacific Gyre. There are gyres in all of the world’s oceans, and researchers are finding plastic trash in them as well. Read more about expeditions to other ocean trash patches at 5Gyres.org. Cleaning them up is a monumental task, and while it might be beneficial to recover some of the material for recycling purposes, thinking that we can clean it all up is misguided at best.
We’re Dumping More Plastic Into the Ocean Than We Can Clean Up.
How can we ever clean it up when every day, more and more single-use disposable products are manufactured, used, and disposed of? It’s like baling water from a bathtub while the spigot is on. A better effort would be cleaning up the rivers and tributaries before the plastic reaches the ocean in the first place.
Focusing on Cleanup Misdirects Attention from the Real Issue.
The Plastics Industry sponsors cleanup efforts without reducing the production of single-use disposable plastics in the first place. The industry also promotes recycling and anti-litter education campaigns as a way to put the onus of the problem on consumers rather than at the source. To their credit, the American Chemistry Council (the mouthpiece of the plastics industry) has created a program called Operation Clean Sweep, which provides guidelines to plastics companies to prevent their plastic resin pellets (aka nurdles) from spilling from factories and rail cars and making their way to the ocean. However, this program is purely voluntary. In fact, the ACC states on their site:
You are encouraged to implement the sections and steps that help achieve your company’s specific goals. None of the guidelines are intended as a mandate.
So is this program more than simply clever PR? I don’t know. I’m just saying…
What experts have to say
I contacted Marcus Eriksen and Bill Francis from the Algalita Marine Research Foundation and 5Gyres for their thoughts on cleanup efforts. They offered a few more points in addition to those I have already made.
Bill Francis from Algalita:
AMRF recognizes the desire of well intentioned individuals and groups to clean up plastic from our oceans. We realize that efforts toward accomplishing this goal could result in new technologies and processes that could be extremely helpful in improving the cleanliness of our oceans, short and long term.
Our concerns are many, however.
What damage will be done through cleanup? A complete environmental assessment needs to be done, including costs, energy, carbon footprint, marine life impaction, as a minimum. Also, this study needs to be published prior to clean up efforts, and with complete transparency.
What is the motivation? Is the clean up being done simply to bring awareness? Is it being done so a group can come back, and claim victory? Is it the “sexy” thing to do so media attention is drawn to those working this area, and they get their “five minutes of fame”?
Too much focus on clean up gives the false hope that we do not need to focus on prevention. The smog in Los Angeles is much improved over the last four decades because less smog is being created, not because we have airplanes, balloons, and gliders pulling particles of smog out of the clouds.
And from Marcus Eriksen of Algalita and 5Gyres:
What I can say with confidence regarding the three gyres I’ve visited, all three contain widely dispersed degraded pieces of plastic film, foam, pellets, line and fragments. The possibility of recovering plastic marine debris by visiting the gyres with boats and barges is even more unimaginable. What stands out as a post-consumer cleanup plan, would be standing on the beaches of islands in the gyres and wait for waste to come to you.
They offer the following solutions:
1) Finding and using materials that “Degrade without Harm”
2) Designing products that reflect the “cradle to cradle” philosophy
3) Educating the public, government, scientists, and industry about true risks and costs of waste handling, health impacts, etc., so they can direct proper choices
4) Implementing a proper Extended Producer’s Responsibility for plastic manufacturing.
And of course I would add that requiring manufacturers to cut the production of single-use disposable plastics would reduce the need for recovery efforts in the first place.
Better Than Nothing?
So, you might be thinking that at least promoting cleanup efforts draws attention to the issue and is better than doing nothing at all. And I would have to disagree. In fact, I think it’s dangerous. As long as media attention is focused on cleanup efforts, consumers, governments, and manufacturers will have no incentive to change. After all, someone else is taking care of the mess that we make, right?
If you hear someone talking about cleaning up the gyre, please set them straight! The plastics industry has big bucks to spend on promoting cleanup and recovery efforts. But we have our voices on the ground (as well as our Facebook and Twitter and blogs.) Start conversations with those you know. Find out what they’ve been hearing and refer them to the Plastic Pollution Coalition, 5Gyres.org, or this blog post. Don’t let the plastics industry’s disinformation continue to spread.