Boyan SLAT, et al.
Pacific Plastic Patch Cleanup
See also : ITO //
&c for proven methods that convert plastic to oil.
Friday, 26 April 2013
19 Yr. Old's Invention Could Clean Up
All The Plastics In The Oceans
by Timon Singh
19-year-old Boyan Slat has unveiled plans to create an Ocean
Cleanup Array that could remove 7,250,000 tons of plastic waste
from the world’s oceans. The device consists of an anchored
network of floating booms and processing platforms that could be
dispatched to garbage patches around the world.
Instead of moving through the ocean, the array would span the
radius of a garbage patch, acting as a giant funnel. The angle of
the booms would force plastic in the direction of the platforms,
where it would be separated from plankton, filtered and stored for
At school, Boyan Slat launched a project that analyzed the size
and amount of plastic particles in the ocean’s garbage patches.
His final paper went on to win several prizes, including Best
Technical Design 2012 at the Delft University of Technology. Boyan
continued to develop his concept during the summer of 2012, and he
revealed it several months later at TEDxDelft 2012.
Slat went on to found The Ocean Cleanup Foundation, a non-profit
organization which is responsible for the development of his
proposed technologies. His ingenious solution could potentially
save hundreds of thousands of aquatic animals annually, and reduce
pollutants (including PCB and DDT) from building up in the food
chain. It could also save millions per year, both in clean-up
costs, lost tourism and damage to marine vessels.
It is estimated that the clean-up process would take about five
years, and it could greatly increase awareness about the world’s
plastic garbage patches. On his site Slat says, “One of the
problems with preventive work is that there isn’t any imagery of
these ‘garbage patches’, because the debris is dispersed over
millions of square kilometres. By placing our arrays however, it
will accumulate along the booms, making it suddenly possible to
actually visualize the oceanic garbage patches. We need to stress
the importance of recycling, and reducing our consumption of
Get a Haircut & a real Job, Kid ! Good God & Country,
Who'll Fight the next War?
But really, seriously, Folks : Fishing Trawlers can be refitted to
skim the top 50 ft where the bulk of plastic is suspended. The
plastic can be processed into oil on site aboard a fleet of
freighters ( There are fleets of mothball freighters sitting @
Asian ports -- e.g., Singapore ).
Or : Wave-Powered
Or : Slave-Power !
We could banish criminals, dissidents, palestinians,
christians, native indigenes, undocumented immigrant
non-citizens, climate-hotting deniers, conspiracy realists,
unemployeds, mental impatients, veterans, and the
such-like to do the work. That would leave the Homeland free and
clear for Us, We the Righteous, Chosen Ones and Only of the
Great .... but I digress...
Ben Him, Done That ...
Problem: The plastic is not static, it moves around.
Solution: Why move through the oceans, if the oceans can move
Fix the sea water processors to the sea bed, and save vast amounts
of funds, manpower and emissions.
Problem:Oceanic 'Garbage Patches' are huge, and cleaning them up
would result in huge amounts of by-catches.
Furthermore there is a huge variety in debris sizes.
Solution: By using floating booms instead of nets, much larger
areas will covered.
No mesh means that even the smallest particles will be diverted
and extracted. No mesh - together with its low speed - will result
to virtually no by-catch.
Although this hypothesis still has to be tested, even the
planktonic species - due to their density being close to that of
the sea water - may move under the booms along with the water
Problems: A clean-up operation would generate significant
emissions. Besides that, in high seas much plastic would escape.
Solution: The platforms will be completely self-supportive,
receiving their energy from e.g. the sun, currents and waves.
And by letting the platforms' wings sway like an actual manta ray,
we can ensure contacts of the inlets with the surface, even in the
Problem: Conventional clean-up ideas have never been financially
realistic, let alone remediation of millions of square kilometres.
Solution: This concept is so efficient, that we estimate that by
selling the plastic retrieved from the 5 gyres, we would make in
fact more money than the plan would cost to execute. In other
words; it may potentially be profitable.
Boylan Slat @ TEDyak
PLEASE READ THIS FIRST
The last couple of days several (spontaneous) articles have been
published, claiming The Ocean Cleanup Array is a 'feasible method'
of extracting plastic from the gyres.
This is an incorrect statement; we are currently only at about
1/4th of completing our feasibility study. Only after finishing
that study, we believe such statements should be made. Although
the preliminary results look promising, and our team of about 50
engineers, modellers, external experts and students is making good
progress, we had and have no intention of presenting a concept as
a feasible solution while still being in investigative phase.
Please stay tuned for this study, which will be published online
in several months' time.
We kindly request the press to refrain from any further
publication, until all assumptions of this concept have been
Boyan Slat | Facebook
Boyan Slat is on Facebook.
March 26, 2013
The Ocean Cleanup Array Project
19-year-old Dutch engineering student Boyan Slat devises plan to
rid the world’s oceans of 7.25 million tons of plastic
The Ocean Cleanup Array project would then sell the retrieved
particles at an estimated profit. But the plan has already draw
the ire of some biologists who fear for sea life that may become
entangled during the plastic recovery process.
Slat's idea has earned him the Best Technical Design award from
Delft University of Technology.
Boyan Slat's idea has earned him the Best Technical Design award
from Delft University of Technology.
Sometimes it takes big ideas to solve big problems.
A 19-year-old Dutch aerospace engineering student has come up with
what he believes is a way to remove millions of pounds of plastic
trash from the world’s oceans.
Dubbed the Ocean Cleanup Array, Boyan Slat’s concept involves
anchoring 24 sifters to the ocean floor and letting the sea’s own
currents direct the plastic bits into miles of booms, or connected
chains of timbers used to catch floating objects.
What started out as a college paper earned Slat the Best Technical
Design award from Delft University of Technology.
Slat, demonstrating his concept, wants to anchor 24 sifters to the
ocean floor and let the sea’s own currents direct the plastic bits
into miles of booms, or connected chains of timbers used to catch
From the start, Slat said he was motivated to get to work by the
very scope of the problem facing the world.
“It will be very hard to convince everyone in the world to handle
their plastics responsibly, but what we humans are very good in,
is inventing technical solutions to our problems,” Slat said on
his website. “And that’s what we’re doing.”
Powered by the sun and ocean currents, the Ocean Cleanup Array
network aims to have as little impact on sea life as possible
while sifting out some 7.25 million tons of plastic over the
course of just five years.
The bulk of the ray-shaped sifters and booms would be set up at
the edges of the five swirling ocean gyres to trap the most
plastic particles possible.
Slat, who presented his idea to an audience at the TED lecture
series in October, believes the recovered plastic could more than
pay for the cleaning process.
Slat, who presented his idea to an audience at the TED lecture
series in October, believes the recovered plastic could more than
pay for the cleaning process.
Able to function in high seas and rough weather, the booms would
trap floating plastic bits, then suck them into a trash sifter.
Once the plastic is retrieved, Slat envisions, it will be brought
ashore and sold.
“This concept is so efficient, that we estimate that by selling
the plastic retrieved from the 5 gyres, we would make in fact more
money than the plan would cost to execute. In other words; it's
profitable,” Slat’s website states.
The plan is not without its critics, however.
“Ships on fixed moorings and thousands of miles of booms (because
the scale of this is also improbable) have the potential to create
a lot more marine debris, and seem particularly hazardous to
entanglement-prone marine life.” Biologist Miriam Goldstein wrote
on the University of Washington’s “Marine Debris Listserv”
Goldstein also raised questions about whether plankton, or small
and microscopic life, would be killed by the sifting process.
For Slat, however, it’s full speed ahead. The wunderkind founded
The Ocean Cleanup Foundation earlier this year and is looking to
partner with plankton biologists, engineers, and, of course,
philanthropists to turn his dream into a reality.
Great Pacific Garbage Patch
Map showing the oceans' five major gyres
The Garbage Patch is located within the North Pacific Gyre, one of
the five major oceanic gyres.
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, also described as the Pacific
Trash Vortex, is a gyre of marine debris in the central North
Pacific Ocean located roughly between 135°W to 155°W and 35°N and
42°N. The patch extends over an indeterminate area, with
estimates ranging very widely depending on the degree of plastic
concentration used to define the affected area.
The Patch is characterized by exceptionally high concentrations of
pelagic plastics, chemical sludge and other debris that have been
trapped by the currents of the North Pacific Gyre. Despite its
size and density, the patch is not visible from satellite
photography, since it consists primarily of suspended particulates
in the upper water column. Since plastics break down to even
smaller polymers, concentrations of submerged particles are not
visible from space, nor do they appear as a continuous debris
field. Instead, the patch is defined as an area in which the mass
of plastic debris in the upper water column is significantly
higher than average.
Map showing large-scale looping water movements within the
Pacific. One circles west to Australia, then south and back to
Latin America. Further north, water moves east to Central America,
and then joins a larger movement further north, which loops south,
west, north, and east between North America and Japan. Two smaller
loops circle in the eastern and central North Pacific.
The Patch is created in the gyre of the North Pacific Subtropical
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch was predicted in a 1988 paper
published by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
(NOAA) of the United States. The prediction was based on results
obtained by several Alaska-based researchers between 1985 and 1988
that measured neustonic plastic in the North Pacific Ocean.
This research found high concentrations of marine debris
accumulating in regions governed by ocean currents. Extrapolating
from findings in the Sea of Japan, the researchers hypothesized
that similar conditions would occur in other parts of the Pacific
where prevailing currents were favorable to the creation of
relatively stable waters. They specifically indicated the North
Charles J. Moore, returning home through the North Pacific Gyre
after competing in the Transpac sailing race in 1997, came upon an
enormous stretch of floating debris. Moore alerted the
oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer, who subsequently dubbed the
region the "Eastern Garbage Patch" (EGP). The area is
frequently featured in media reports as an exceptional example of
The patch is not easily visible because it consists of very small
pieces, almost invisible to the naked eye, most of its contents
are suspended beneath the surface of the ocean, and the
relatively low density of the plastic debris at, in one scientific
study, 5.1 kilograms of plastic per square kilometer of ocean
A similar patch of floating plastic debris is found in the
Atlantic Ocean. See: North Atlantic Garbage Patch.
It is thought that, like other areas of concentrated marine debris
in the world's oceans, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch formed
gradually as a result of marine pollution gathered by oceanic
currents. The garbage patch occupies a large and relatively
stationary region of the North Pacific Ocean bound by the North
Pacific Gyre (a remote area commonly referred to as the horse
latitudes). The gyre's rotational pattern draws in waste material
from across the North Pacific Ocean, including coastal waters off
North America and Japan. As material is captured in the currents,
wind-driven surface currents gradually move floating debris toward
the center, trapping it in the region.
There are no strong scientific data concerning the origins of
pelagic plastics. The figure that an estimated 80% of the garbage
comes from land-based sources and 20% from ships is derived from
an unsubstantiated estimate. Ship-generated pollution is a
source of concern, since a typical 3,000-passenger cruise ship
produces over eight tons of solid waste weekly, a major amount of
which ends up in the patch, as most of the waste is organic.
Pollutants range in size from abandoned fishing nets to
micro-pellets used in abrasive cleaners. Currents carry debris
from the west coast of North America to the gyre in about six
years, and debris from the east coast of Asia in a year or
less. An international research project led by Dr.
Hideshige Takada of Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology
studying plastic pellets, or nurdles, from beaches around the
world may provide further clues about the origins of pelagic
Logically, the land-based sources of pollutants and plastics come
from the great rivers from around the world. The Ganges, in India,
is an example of a source of major sea pollution (see Pollution of
the Ganges). The major rivers of Bangladesh, Nigeria, and other
developing nations collectively provide another example of
marine-pollution sources. It has been noted that the levels of
pollution in and around these rivers constitute a major health
hazard to people living and doing business around the water.
Estimates of size
The size of the patch is unknown, as large items readily visible
from a boat deck are uncommon. Most debris consists of small
plastic particles suspended at or just below the surface, making
it impossible to detect by aircraft or satellite. Instead, the
size of the patch is determined by sampling. Estimates of size
range from 700,000 square kilometres (270,000 sq mi) to more than
15,000,000 square kilometres (5,800,000 sq mi) (0.41% to 8.1% of
the size of the Pacific Ocean), or, in some media reports, up to
"twice the size of the continental United States". Such
estimates, however, are conjectural based on the complexities of
sampling and the need to assess findings against other areas.
Net-based surveys are less subjective than
direct observations but are limited regarding the area that can be
sampled (net apertures 1–2 m and ships typically have to slow down
to deploy nets, requiring dedicated ship's time). The plastic
debris sampled is determined by net mesh size, with similar mesh
sizes required to make meaningful comparisons among studies.
Floating debris typically is sampled with a neuston or manta trawl
net lined with 0.33 mm mesh. Given the very high level of spatial
clumping in marine litter, large numbers of net tows are required
to adequately characterize the average abundance of litter at sea.
Long-term changes in plastic meso-litter have been reported using
surface net tows: in the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre in 1999,
plastic abundance was 335 000 items/km2 and 5.1 kg/km2, roughly an
order of magnitude greater than samples collected in the 1980s.
Similar dramatic increases in plastic debris have been reported
off Japan. However, caution is needed in interpreting such
findings, because of the problems of extreme spatial
heterogeneity, and the need to compare samples from equivalent
water masses, which is to say that, if an examination of the same
parcel of water a week apart is conducted, an order of magnitude
change in plastic concentration could be observed.
Further, although the size of the patch is determined by a
higher-than-normal degree of concentration of pelagic debris,
there is no specific standard for determining the boundary between
the "normal" and "elevated" levels of pollutants to provide a firm
estimate of the affected area.
In August 2009, the Scripps Institution of Oceanography/Project
Kaisei SEAPLEX survey mission of the Gyre found that plastic
debris was present in 100 consecutive samples taken at varying
depths and net sizes along a 1,700 miles (2,700 km) path through
the patch. The survey also confirmed that, while the debris field
does contain large pieces, it is on the whole made up of smaller
items that increase in concentration toward the Gyre's centre, and
these 'confetti-like' pieces are clearly visible just beneath the
Charles Moore has estimated the mass of the Great Pacific Garbage
Patch at 100 million tons, which would be several tons per km2
Although many media and advocacy reports have suggested that the
patch extends over an area larger than the continental U.S.,
recent research sponsored by the National Science Foundation
suggests the affected area may be twice the size of
Hawaii, while a recent study concluded that the patch
might be smaller. This can be attributed to the fact that
there is no specific standard for determining the boundary between
the "normal" and "elevated" levels of pollutants and what
constitutes being part of the patch. The size is determined by a
higher-than-normal degree of concentration of pelagic debris in
the water. Recent data collected from Pacific albatross
populations suggest there may be two distinct zones of
concentrated debris in the Pacific.
Photodegradation of plastics
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch has one of the highest levels
known of plastic particulate suspended in the upper water column.
As a result, it is one of several oceanic regions where
researchers have studied the effects and impact of plastic
photodegradation in the neustonic layer of water. Unlike
organic debris, which biodegrades, the photodegraded plastic
disintegrates into ever smaller pieces while remaining a polymer.
This process continues down to the molecular level.
As the plastic flotsam photodegrades into smaller and smaller
pieces, it concentrates in the upper water column. As it
disintegrates, the plastic ultimately becomes small enough to be
ingested by aquatic organisms that reside near the ocean's
surface. In this way, plastic may become concentrated in neuston,
thereby entering the food chain.
Some plastics decompose within a year of entering the water,
leaching potentially toxic chemicals such as bisphenol A, PCBs,
and derivatives of polystyrene.
The process of disintegration means that the plastic particulate
in much of the affected region is too small to be seen. In a 2001
study, researchers (including Charles Moore) found concentrations
of plastic particles at 334,721 pieces per km2 with a mean mass of
5,114 grams (11.27 lbs) per km2, in the neuston. Assuming each
particle of plastic averaged 5 mm x 5 mm x 1 mm, this would amount
to only 8 m2 per km2 due to small particulates. Nonetheless, this
represents a very high amount with respect to the overall ecology
of the neuston. In many of the sampled areas, the overall
concentration of plastics was seven times greater than the
concentration of zooplankton. Samples collected at deeper points
in the water column found much lower concentrations of plastic
particles (primarily monofilament fishing line pieces).
Nevertheless, according to the mentioned estimates, only a very
small part of the plastic would be near the surface.
Effect on wildlife
Some of these long-lasting plastics end up in the stomachs of
marine birds and animals, and their young, including sea
turtles and the Black-footed Albatross. Midway Atoll receives
substantial amounts of marine debris from the Great Pacific
Garbage Patch. Of the 1.5 million Laysan Albatrosses that inhabit
Midway, nearly all are found to have plastic in their digestive
system. Of the approximately one-third of the chicks that die,
many of them are due to being fed plastic from their
Besides the particles' danger to wildlife, on the microscopic
level the floating debris can adsorb organic pollutants from
seawater, including PCBs, DDT, and PAHs. Aside from toxic
effects, when ingested, some of these are mistaken by the
endocrine system as estradiol, causing hormone disruption in the
affected animal. These toxin-containing plastic pieces are
also eaten by jellyfish, which are then eaten by larger fish.
Many of these fish are then consumed by humans, resulting in their
ingestion of toxic chemicals. Marine plastics also facilitate
the spread of invasive species that attach to floating plastic in
one region and drift long distances to colonize other
On the macroscopic level, the physical size of the plastic kills
birds and turtles as the animals' digestion can not break down the
plastic inside their stomachs. A second effect of the macroscopic
plastic is to make it much more difficult for animals to see and
detect their normal sources of food.
Research has shown that this plastic marine debris affects at
least 267 species worldwide and a few of the 267 species reside in
the North Pacific Gyre.
Research of cleanup
In April 2008, Richard Sundance Owen, a building contractor and
scuba dive instructor, formed the Environmental Cleanup Coalition
(ECC) to address the issue of North Pacific pollution. ECC
collaborates with other groups to identify methods to safely
remove plastic and persistent organic pollutants from the
The JUNK raft project was a trans-Pacific sailing voyage from June
to August 2008 made to highlight the plastic in the patch,
organized by the Algalita Marine Research Foundation.
Project Kaisei is a project to study and clean up the garbage
patch launched in March 2009. In August 2009, two project vessels,
the New Horizon and the Kaisei, embarked on a voyage to research
the patch and determine the feasibility of commercial scale
collection and recycling.
The SEAPLEX expedition, a group of researchers from Scripps
Institution of Oceanography, spent 19 days on the ocean in August,
2009 researching the patch. Their primary goal was to describe the
abundance and distribution of plastic in the gyre in the most
rigorous study to date. Researchers were also looking at the
impact of plastic on mesopelagic fish, such as
lanternfish. This group utilized a fully capable
dedicated oceanographic research vessel, the 170 ft (52 m) long
New Horizon .
In 2012 Miriam C. Goldstein, Marci Rosenberg, and Lanna Cheng
Plastic pollution in the form of small particles (diameter less
than 5 mm) — termed ‘microplastic’ — has been observed in many
parts of the world ocean. They are known to interact with biota on
the individual level, e.g. through ingestion, but their
population-level impacts are largely unknown. One potential
mechanism for microplastic-induced alteration of pelagic
ecosystems is through the introduction of hard-substrate habitat
to ecosystems where it is naturally rare. Here, we show that
microplastic concentrations in the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre
(NPSG) have increased by two orders of magnitude in the past four
decades, and that this increase has released the pelagic insect
Halobates sericeus from substrate limitation for oviposition. High
concentrations of microplastic in the NPSG resulted in a positive
correlation between H. sericeus and microplastic, and an overall
increase in H. sericeus egg densities. Predation on H. sericeus
eggs and recent hatchlings may facilitate the transfer of energy
between pelagic- and substrate-associated assemblages. The
dynamics of hard-substrate-associated organisms may be important
to understanding the ecological impacts of oceanic microplastic
The Goldstein et al. study compared changes in small plastic
abundance between 1972-1987 and 1999-2010 by using historical
samples from the Scripps Pelagic Invertebrate Collection and data
from SEAPLEX, a NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer cruise in 2010,
information from the Algalita Marine Research Foundation as well
as various published papers. 
At TEDxDelft2012, Dutch Aerospace Engineering student
Boyan Slat unveiled a concept for removing large amounts of marine
debris from the five oceanic gyres. With his concept called The
Ocean Cleanup, he proposes a radical clean-up that would use the
surface currents to let the debris drift to specially designed
arms and collection platforms. This way the running costs would be
virtually zero, and would the operation be so efficient that it
may even be profitable. The concept makes use of floating booms,
that won’t catch the debris, but divert it. This way by-catch
would be avoided, and even the smallest particles would be
extracted. According to Boyan Slat's calculations, a gyre could
realistically be cleaned up in five years' time, collecting at
least 7.25 million tons of plastic combining all gyres. He
however does note that an ocean-based cleanup is only half the
story, and will therefore have to be paired with 'radical plastic
pollution prevention methods in order to succeed'.
Method, a producer of household products, took the garbage patch
as an opportunity and began marketing a dish soap whose container
is made partly of recycled ocean plastic. The company sent crews
to Hawaiian beaches to recover some of the debris that had washed
The 2012 Algalita/5 Gyres Asia Pacific Expedition, though plagued
by severe weather on Leg 2, met the goals and objectives it set
out to achieve.
Beginning in the Marshall Islands on May 1, Leg 1 investigated the
little studied Western Pacific Garbage Patch, arriving in Tokyo
three weeks later. During their scheduled layover and crew change,
an International Scientific Symposium was held with Captain
Charles Moore as one of the speakers.
Marcus Eriksen led the expedition, collecting samples for the 5
Gyres Institute, Algalita Marine Research Foundation and several
other colleagues, including NOAA, SCRIPPS, IPRC and Woods Hole
Oceanographic Institute. Hank Carson. was aboard to study colonial
communities fouling marine debris, as well as collect samples of
plastic pollution for his students and colleagues at University of
Hawaii at Hilo. Filmmakers Alex and Tyler Mifflin were aboard to
document the journey for a series titled “The Water Brothers”, in
which they explore water issues around the world. Belinda
Braithwaite, Carolyn Box, Bob Atwater, Valerie Lecour, Michael
Brown, Cynthia Matzke, Shanley Mcentee and Kristal Ambrose rounded
out the expedition. 
From October 4 to November 9, 2012, the Sea Education Association
(SEA) conducted a research expedition to study plastic pollution
in the North Pacific gyre. 38 sailors, scientists, ship's crew,
and journalists sailed from San Diego, California to Honolulu,
Hawaii aboard the SSV Robert C. Seamans, led by Chief Scientist
Emelia DeForce and Captain Jason Quilter. A similar research
expedition was conducted by SEA in the North Atlantic Ocean in
2010. During the Plastics at SEA 2012 North Pacific Expedition, a
total of 118 net tows were conducted and nearly 70,000 pieces of
plastic were counted to estimate the density of plastics, map the
distribution of plastics in the gyre, and examine the effects of
plastic debris on marine life. 
Study: Plastic in 'Great
Pacific Garbage Patch' increases 100-fold
The amount of plastic trash in the "Great Pacific Garbage Patch"
has increased 100-fold during the past 40 years, causing
"profound" changes to the marine environment, according to a new
Scientists from Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego
found that insects called "sea skaters" or "water striders" were
using the trash as a place to lay their eggs in greater numbers
In a paper published by the journal Biology Letters, researchers
said this would have implications for other animals, the sea
skaters' predators -- which include crabs -- and their food,
which is mainly plankton and fish eggs.
The scientists also pointed to a previous Scripps study that found
nine percent of fish had plastic waste in their stomachs.
The "Great Pacific Garbage Patch" -- which is roughly the size of
Texas -- was created by plastic waste that finds its way into the
sea and is then swept into one area, the North Pacific Subtropical
Convergence Zone, by circulating ocean currents known as a gyre.
This map shows the North Pacific Subtropical Convergence Zone
within the North Pacific Gyre.
The Scripps Environmental Accumulation of Plastic Expedition,
known as SEAPLEX, traveled about 1,000 miles west of California in
A statement on Scripps' website said the scientists had
"documented an alarming amount of human-generated trash, mostly
broken down bits of plastic the size of a fingernail floating
across thousands of miles of open ocean."
Scripps graduate student Miriam Goldstein, SEAPLEX’s chief
scientist, said that plastic had arrived in the ocean in such
numbers in a "relatively short" period.
Dec. 29, 2007: NBC's Kerry Sanders reports on a huge mass of
garbage floating in the Pacific Ocean that is killing marine life
and growing larger each day.
"Plastic only became widespread in late '40s and early '50s, but
now everyone uses it and over a 40-year range we've seen a
dramatic increase in ocean plastic," she said. "Historically we
have not been very good at stopping plastic from getting into the
ocean so hopefully in the future we can do better."
Researchers found fish larvae growing on pieces of plastic, such
as the one above.
Sea skaters -- relatives of pond water skaters -- normally lay
their eggs on flotsam such as seashells, seabird feathers, tar
lumps and pumice. The sharp rise in plastic waste had led to an
increase in egg densities in the gyre area, the study found.
"We're seeing changes in this marine insect that can be directly
attributed to the plastic," Goldstein said in a statement.
She told BBC News that the addition of "hundreds of millions of
hard surfaces" to the Pacific was "quite a profound change."
Samples taken by the scientists showed how marine life, such as
small velella pictured above, lives alongside pieces of plastic.
"In the North Pacific, for example, there's no floating seaweed
like there is in the Sargasso Sea in the North Atlantic. And we
know that the animals, the plants and the microbes that live on
hard surfaces are different to the ones that live floating around
in the water," she added.
A garbage patch has also been found in the Atlantic Ocean, lying a
few hundreds miles off the North American coast from Cuba to
Oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer, who said he coined the phrase the
"Great Pacific Garbage Patch," told msnbc.com by phone that the
only solution was to switch to using biodegradable plastic and let
the plastic gradually disperse.
"We can't clean it up. It's just too big. You'd have to have the
entire U.S. Navy out there, round the clock, continuously towing
little nets. And it's produced so fast, they wouldn't be able to
keep up," he said.
Ebbesmeyer said in 10,000 years scientists might find a layer of
plastic in the ground and use this as evidence of "the plastic
Oh, This is Great : Humans
Have Finally Ruined the Ocean
Photos by Jake Burghart
I’m not one of those guys who corners folks at parties to rant at
them about biodiesel or calls people “fucking idiots” for being
skeptical about global warming. But I should also point out that
I’m not one of those Andrew Dice Clay “Fuck the whales” types
The problem with all the bravado on both sides of the ecology
debate is that nobody really knows what they’re talking about.
Trying to form opinions on climate change, overpopulation, and
peak oil hinges on ginormous leaps of faith based around tiny
statistical deviances that even the scientists studying them have
a hard time understanding. It gets so convoluted with all the
yelling and the politics that sometimes you just want something
huge and incontrovertibly awful to come along for everybody to
agree on. Something you can show anyone a picture of and go, “See?
Well, I have just such a thing. There is a Texas-size section of
the Pacific Ocean that is irretrievably clogged with garbage and
it will never go away. And I have seen it with my own eyes. Case
closed. Oh, you want to hear more? OK, fine.
In the middle of the 90s, Charles Moore was sailing his racing
catamaran back to California from Hawaii and decided on a lark to
cut through the center of the North Pacific Gyre. The Gyre is an
enormous vortex of currents revolving around a continuous
high-pressure zone—if you think of the rest of the Pacific as a
gigantic toilet, this zone would be the part where your poop bobs
and twirls before being sucked down. Boats typically avoid it
since it’s essentially one big windless death trap, so when Moore
motored through it was just him, his crew, and an endless field of
As long as it’s existed, the middle of the Gyre has been a
naturally occurring point of accumulation for all the drifting
crap in its half of the ocean. Once upon a time, flotsam circled
into the middle of the Gyre and (because up until the past century
everything in the world was biodegradable) was broken down into a
nutrient-rich stew perfect for fish and smaller invertebrates to
chow on. Then we started making everything out of plastic and the
whole place went to shit.
The problem with plastic is, unless you hammer it with enough
pressure to make a diamond, it never fully disintegrates. Over
time plastic will photodegrade all the way down to the individual
polymers, but those little guys are still in it for the long haul.
This means that except for the slim handful of plastics designed
specifically to biodegrade, every synthetic molecule ever made
still exists. And except for the small percentage that gets caught
in a net or washes up on a shore, every chunk of plastic that’s
dropped into the Pacific makes its way to the center of the Gyre
and is floating there right now.
After watching junk lap against the side of his boat for the
better part of a week, Captain Moore decided to convert his boat
into a research vessel and make semiannual trips into the Gyre to
study the trash. I tagged along on his most recent voyage, joining
a divorced, 40-something doctor and a Mexican chemist and mother
of two as his crew. It was like a family vacation, but with more
science and way more bummers.
The garbage patch is located at one of the most remote points on
earth. It takes a solid week of sailing just to get there.
Considering how torturous the average daylong car trip gets, you
can well imagine the kind of zap job that seven days on a 50-foot
boat will do to your brain. You lose sight of land the first day,
then you stop seeing other ships, then you stop seeing anything at
all except for endless waves and occasionally a seabird, which,
after days of nothing but water, becomes as exciting as spotting a
UFO. Right at the point where you’ve come up with a separate song
for every bird in the ship’s guidebook and have begun integrating
them into a full seabird opera, you start seeing the trash.
I had assumed (completely without any basis in research or common
sense) that there was some contiguous mass of concentrated garbage
the captain was steering us toward, but (sadly?) this was not the
case. The debris patterns shift with the currents, so you just
have to aim the boat in one direction and hope for crap. Every so
often we’d spot a few different pieces of garbage floating sort of
near one another, but for the most part it was just a steady
stream of junk, passing one piece at a time. It was a little
underwhelming at first, but keep in mind we were cutting a
razor-thin course through one of the biggest expanses of open
water on the planet. The fact that we couldn’t look out the window
for the better part of the trip without seeing some piece of junk
bobbing by holds some seriously ugly implications for the rest of
The first few times we spotted garbage, we made a big production
of stopping the boat and going out to scoop it up. Then we began
just picking up whatever trash we could snag from the front of the
deck. Then we just grabbed whatever looked interesting.
Some of the flotsam is fun stuff that fell off the side of
container ships, like entire crates of hockey masks and Nikes. You
might have read about the shipment of rubber duckies that got lost
in a storm back in 1992 and have been used by oceanographers to
more accurately plot the movement of water currents. I guess
that’s something of a silver lining to the situation, although
it’s a lot like thanking AIDS and cholera for all the advances
they’ve provided to epidemiologists.
Before we became equal parts bored and depressed with hauling
garbage out of the sea all day, we managed to score a motorcycle
wheel, a hard hat, and some children’s life preservers with shark
bites in them. We also narrowly missed running into what was
either a ship’s mast or a telephone pole. The majority of our
haul, though, was just average crap like Coke bottles and grocery
bags. A lot of it seemed to come from Asia, meaning it had to have
traveled at least 5,000 miles just for us to find it. The scary,
staggering thing to consider while holding this stuff is that only
a fifth of it is tossed from boats. Most of it is land-born trash
that somehow ended up in a waterway and worked a slow path out to
sea. As the captain said a good ten or so times, “The ocean is
downstream of everything.”
Once we were firmly inside the patch, Captain Moore rigged up a
trawl and started taking water samples in little petri dishes. I
figured these would be snoozers without a microscope, but when the
first one came in it was more horrifying than anything we’d seen
There were a few water striders and tiny jellyfish here and there,
but they were totally overwhelmed by a thick confetti of plastic
particles. It looked like a snow globe made of garbage. Based on
previous samples, Moore estimated the ratio of plastic to the
regular components of seawater in what we were pulling up as 6 to
1. As we moved closer to the middle of the Gyre, the ratio got
visibly higher, until we started pulling in samples that looked
like they contained solely plastic.
This is the part of the trip that weighs heaviest on my mind. It’s
terrible enough to litter sections of the planet with things that
can conceivably be removed—I mean, even oil spills and radioactive
dust can be cleaned up to a certain extent. But to fundamentally
alter the composition of seawater at one of the farthest points
from civilization on the globe is a whole different ballpark of
fucking the planet. It’s fucking it right up the ass, for good and
forever. Without lube.
But wait, here comes the scariest part.
Once the plastic confetti gets small enough to fit inside a
jellyfish’s mouth, it gets sucked in and starts its way up the
food chain back to us. As the jellies float out of the debris
field, little fish eat them, absorbing all the built-up plastics.
Then big fish eat a bunch of little fish, even bigger fish eat a
bunch of big fish, and by the time you get to the point where
we’re hoisting creatures out and eating them, you’re looking at
entire milk crates’ worth of particles built up in their fat. It’s
the cycle of life reimagined as a dystopian sci-fi cliché. We are
eating our own refuse.
Aside from clogging up the digestive tract (biologists in the
Pacific have found the bodies of birds who starved to death
because their stomachs were completely packed with trash),
degraded plastics also have the tendency to sop up foreign
chemicals that have leached into the water. There’s a whole class
of pesticides and solvents called persistent organic pollutants
that are basically tailor-made to attach themselves to loose
synthetics and wreak havoc on whatever living thing happens to
swallow them. The chemist on our boat was studying a pair of the
most prevalent of these pollutants in the Pacific water, DDE and
DDT. Yep, the same DDT that kills baby eagles. It’s also a
probable carcinogen with links to diminished sperm counts and
developmental retardation. The ocean is brimming with this shit.
What’s worse than this is even when the plastic is free from
outside toxins, its components can potentially wreck your body.
Bisphenol A is a compound used in things like Nalgene bottles and
dildos. It’s also a synthetic estrogen and can completely derail
the reproductive system. Dr. Frederic vom Saal of the University
of Missouri has been studying the effects of bisphenol A on lab
mice for the past decade and has noticed ties to its exposure with
an absurd suite of health problems including low sperm count,
prostate cancer, hyperactivity, early-onset diabetes, breast
cancer, undescended testicles, and sex reversal. Does the fact
that humans can suffer SEX REVERSAL symptoms from inadvertently
eating a compound that is used to make dildos qualify as irony?
Vom Saal’s research is at the center of a messy dispute because it
involves exposure in such infinitesimal quantities and nobody is
exactly sure how the endocrine system works. There’s also a tricky
“magic bullet” sort of quality to his findings, but after talking
with him it seemed like even he was a little taken aback that this
one chemical could be at the root of almost every major US health
crisis of the past 30 years. And even if he’s only right on one of
the above counts, yeesh.
Still worse than any of this is the possibility that the same
chemicals can simultaneously trigger massive disruptions in DNA.
“All it takes is one misaligned chromosome and you’ve got things
like Down syndrome,” vom Saal says. “If you examine the genetic
material in animals exposed to low doses of bisphenol A, it looks
like someone fired a shotgun into the chromosomes.”
On the outer edge of the Gyre, we ran smack into the white whale
of the maritime trash world: a ghost net. Ghost nets are loose
tangles of fishing line and nets that float freely across the
ocean, snagging anything in their path. They are the langoliers of
the sea. Ghost nets have been found that are miles long with oars
and sharks’ skulls and full turtle skeletons peeking out of their
knots. The one we caught wasn’t anywhere near that big, but it was
easily twice my size, weighed 200 pounds, and housed both a
toothbrush and its own school of tropical fish.
There was no way we could tow the massive clump of nets to shore,
so we hoisted it onto the back of the ship, attached a GPS tag so
that oceanographers could track its movement, and lowered it back
into the water. Our camera guy Jake jumped in after it to film it
drifting away in a cloud of slaked-off string and plastic. When he
hopped back on board it looked like somebody had smeared body
glitter across his chest. It was tiny chunks of plastic.
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