The blog formerly known as   Fake Plastic Fish

June 25, 2010

Why We Can’t Clean Up the Pacific Gyre

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.

water sample from Pacific GyreFirst 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 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,, or this blog post.  Don’t let the plastics industry’s disinformation continue to spread.

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10 years ago

The idea that it’s dangerous to clean it up is absolutely ridiculous. It NEEDS to be cleaned up and that is all there is to it. The real problem is that our governments will not spend the money. It’s ALL about money and always has been. Tell the truth for once. JUST ONCE!

Carl S.
13 years ago

Hey everyone!

My name is Carl and I’m currently a student at UC Berkeley. My college peers and I have begun our campaign against the detrimental effects of man-made climate change within our respective colleges.

We’ve started a project called the Collegiate Climate Collaboration in hopes of drawing discussion towards issues we’re all facing. We feel that only with the help of the spirit and vigor of the younger generation can we overcome the hurdles imposed by climate change.

I hope that everyone here can take the time to visit and contribute their two cents to the various posts on board.

Thank you so very much! As Margaret Mead once said (I’m paraphrasing), never doubt the ability of a small group of dedicated individuals to change the world.

13 years ago

This is a superb article, Beth, and shines a light on the whole issue of rushing in to fix a problem with insufficient research and planning. I was glad to see Algalita’s Bill Francis call for an environmental assessment before we plunge into clean-up.

Your point about media focus is critical. “Clean-up” is so much easier to say in a sound-bite than “environmental assessment,” and feels so much easier than changing personal habits and corporate profit centers. The media likes tidy little phrases; complex plans–not so much.

This concept is so new (to me at least) and so important that I mentioned it, with a link, in my Water Wednesday (#WaterWednesday) post today. You’ll find it at

Thanks again for an important topic, well delineated and substantiated.

Danika Carter
13 years ago

When I read this, 2 things came to mind. First, the statements that Phiippe Cousteau (grandson of JacquesCousteau) and Charles Hambleton (Producer of The Cove) said this past week at LOHAS on the panel about the oil disaster (I refuse to say spill). When asked what’s the single most important thing we can do as individuals to help the Gulf and clean up efforts Philippe said “To end our dependence on oil” and Charles said “To never buy another plastic bottle again.”

I also thought about my feelings about many of the breast cancer groups that are focused on looking for a cure while taking money from the very companies that are polluting our bodies rather than looking at prevention. It’s exactly the same scenario.

There may be a time where we can look at cleaning up, maybe not all of it, but much of it. But as you said, we can’t do that until we stop the problem that created it in the first place. Prevention is ALWAYS better than cleanup.

13 years ago

I saw somewhere a campaign to go out the the gyre and clean it all up. Even knowing how impossible that is, my first thought was “Thank goodness somebody is going to fix this so I don’t have to worry about it anymore.” I think it is important in this time of strong marketing to always pay attention to your first thought and ask yourself who it benefits.

13 years ago

It’s sad that cleaning up the problem has more marketing value (hence more dollars in corporate pockets) than actually preventing the problem to begin with.

Thanks for sharing this Beth. Kudos.

13 years ago

Imagine a world where people lived their lives like Beth, we would have such a cleaner world. There would be no Gulf disasters. Plastic is just everywhere, and it is hard not to buy it. I need a new toothbrush but keep holding off because they are all plastic. I pick up so many waterbottles 3/4 full of water and think did that person really need one swig of water so badly they had to buy another bottle. I hope we can make a difference but the problem seems so overwhelming. g

Rebecca The Greeniac
13 years ago

What a wonderful and well-researched post. I must say the scope of the problem makes me feel so depressed and helpless.

But, in keeping with my “lighting a candle” philosophy, I spent the evening doing No-Poo and Solar Oven show and tell, and giving away solar-cooked cornbread at Denver’s newly formed home made market club. Many people had food available, but all of the vendors (myself included) brought real dishes, cups and silverware. I was amazed… most people even took them over to the sink and washed them before returning them to me.

Still, I know I’m not immune to the problem. But you’ve given me new resolve. I think I’m gonna buy some asparagus now while it’s in season and freeze it for the winter, so when my boyfriend needs his asparagus fix in February, I can provide it without resorting to the unrecyclable plastic frozen food bags.

13 years ago

Thanks again Beth. You make me strong so that when I go in to the shops with my own containers so that I don’t take plastic and I am the only one doing it, I know in my mind exactly why I am doing this (in the face of massive ignorance). I think of ways to communicate about plastics and waste so as to inspire people to ask questions themselves about their automatic shopping habits b and to inform them.
Shopping differently takes great effort and mindfulness but it is satisfying when I have new victories over my old habits. You make it easier with the information you constantly provide.
Great work Beth!

13 years ago

I honestly feel incredibly depressed in the face of this problem. My only hope is that as we all increase in awareness, change will happen. As more of us demand plastic-free products, change will happen. At least, I really hope that it will.

13 years ago

After meeting Charlie Moore last year, I have become acquainted with his work and the great people at Algalita.
For the past 10 years I have been writing about plastic pollution and the fallacies of recycling as we know it. It’s not working, we are landfilling and exporting our garbage to third world countries. There is no cleaning up the gyre because any effort to do so would kill everything beneficial in the mix while the crap replaced itself in a heart beat.
Our consumption habits must change. My politics are evidenced by the way I live my life… and I vote with my wallet, in what I buy and what I discard. That’s where it starts. We are a culture with yet another addiction… single use plastic! At the same time, we must work on the government to ban and regulate, to encourage business to do things more sustainably. AB 1998, etc. Bags and bottles are the low hanging fruit. No one in the US needs a PET bottle except in an emergency.
Please understand that I am a conservationist, pro-business, pro-jobs, pro-made in the USA. I don’t have kids, but I care how I leave the planet for those who do.
Plastic is a petroleum product. To recycle it into something else, like Trex, is questionable. The parallel to cigarettes is perfect: if we are all smokers and we have this great idea to take all the butts and remanufacture them into a useful product… we are still killing ourselves by smoking.
Any individual or organization that thinks they are making a difference while relying on throwaways, like those who are raising money for cancer research, etc. I hope they will soon figure out the connection. Plastic is an obscenity to nature… and the human body.
Support organizations that are true to their principles and who practice zero waste. (Or darn near!)

13 years ago

Beth, you’ve probably figured out that I usually prefer to speak with my head and not so much with my heart. I think this time has to be an exception, though. The idea that there are these huge swirling piles of garbage out there that are just taking over the oceans and that mankind is collectively helpless to do J.S. about it is just WAAAY too depressing. I think trying to motivate huge numbers of people into caring enough to get active but then not even allowing them to have the goal of CLEANING IT UP is doomed. From my perspective, when a system is broken, blame the system and fix that, not the users of the system. I laud your efforts via FPF, and I think you have the potential to really motivate a lot of people to question just how much plastic crap we really need, but to fix a problem like the ocean plastic gyres you really need to ultimately motivate entire governments, not just a few well-intentioned do-gooders.

So… two problems. The answer to the first (ongoing pollution) isn’t to rely on the integrity of the collective human spirit, much as it would be nice to be able to do so. THE answer is one you’ve already mentioned: Cradle to cradle. We NEED to replace disposable plastics with viable alternatives that will have mass appeal. I can’t even persuade my hospital cafeteria to use real plates at night in addition to the plastic stuff– it’s just too convenient for the limited night shift people to just throw all the trash away rather than make them clean dishes.

The second problem: cleaning up the existing mess. “Garbage heap twice the size of Texas” sounds really scary (and it is), but there are some obvious engineering approaches to dealing with that kind of problem, and they should be explored. Collecting trash only to throw it onto a big heap on land isn’t going to help deal with the problem. Instead we need to be able to turn trash (new as well as collected) into a valuable enough commodity that it’s really worth somebody’s time to go out there and clean it up, presumably by dragging Really Big Nets along through the water behind ships with increasingly smaller mesh sizes. If we can get engineers to develop ways to get on top of the dioxin problem with improved incineration techniques, then I think that turning trash into energy is one really obvious way to go. Recycling will be the ideal that we should continue to work towards, but without a global Cradle-to-Cradle design initiative, the sorting problems are pretty overwhelming.

Please — keep up the good fight, and don’t just accept that we’vealready screwed up the planet beyond hope of redemption/repair.


Nick Palmer
13 years ago

Hi Beth,
You might like or loath this link which is about Electrolux planning to capture Gyre plastic to make vacuum cleaner bodies…

LInda Anderson
13 years ago

A thought related to the island picture of the trash – if you fly over it (even at low altitude) you cannot see it. You may see a large floating piece of debris here and there, but most of the plastic is just under the surface, especially if the water is turbulent. Small pieces get pulled under the surface, sometimes many feet under.

Sandra Lee
13 years ago

The bathtub analogy is perfect! Let’s reduce our use of plastic to start off with. It can be a fun adventure as Beth so beautifully shows!

13 years ago

Re single-use plastics, I have stopped celebrating hubby’s success at finding a new job…

For the last 3 months he’s been commuting a round trip of 140 miles a day on a motorcycle, this being more financially beneficial for us than him staying up there during the week (crazy – but beggars can’t be choosers) and at least DD got to see her daddy more too.

From Monday his round trip commute will be a mere 15 miles – hooray! But yesterday I found out what they do.. didn’t really ask before, in my joy. They make shrinkwrap machines for things like cigarette packets and food packets.

I need to a find a brick wall and BANG MY HEAD AGAINST IT! because I can’t afford to tell him that this job will make me feel awful. The job market just isn’t there to catch him, and chances are I’ll be redundant by Christmas too.

Beth D.
13 years ago

When I read this, I immediately thought about the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster. People have been talking about “cleaning up the oil” from day one, and it wasn’t until 3 weeks later we found out that the oil is still spewing into the ocean! When BP talks about how they will “pay for all clean-up and loss of income claims”, it makes me really ticked off because the problem is still happening!

Same thing with the plastic whirls. After seeing footage of them, I now notice all the plastic trash sitting the road just on the edge of the sewer drain and imagine it making its way to the ocean.

13 years ago

The recycling program in Toronto INCREASED our trash collected.
Amen to your thoughts on clean up.
We just need to STOP.

Lianne Lavoie
13 years ago

So true. It’s a similar problem to people who recycle, and are told that recycling is so awesome, and as a result make little to no effort to reduce.

13 years ago

To think that the ocean is where life on land came from – talk about fouling the nest! And isn’t it characteristic that people are talking about sending people to the moon and Mars as indicative of the “human spirit”. Way past time to be a bit more humble about that lofty spirit and to be realistic about what humanity actually does.

13 years ago

Oh, I forgot, Beth if you have a minute, wander over to my blog, I quoted you and of course linked back. tell me what you think.

13 years ago

Bravo, I like your analogy of the bathtub, makes sense to me.

I am daily inspired by your thoughts.