Every year, humans throw away enough plastic to circle the Earth four times, and a lot of that plastic ends up in our oceans. While local cleanup efforts are a great help to the environment, the scale of the problem increases exponentially when you leave shore and head out to sea. Billions of pounds of plastic pollute the major bodies of water on Earth, making up 40 percent of their surface area at any given time. The most notable of these pollution sites is known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a slowly-swirling slurry of particulate plastic and discarded goods.

An Island Of Trash

The North Pacific Gyre stretches from the California coast all the way west to Japan, circling just north of New Zealand. It is home to the most extensive collection of ocean-bound trash in the world. This vortex of garbage is known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and it covers an area twice the size of Texas and the plastic contained within it outnumbers sea life at a ratio of six to one. From Los Angeles alone, 10 metric tons of plastic waste, such as grocery bags, straws, and bottles, wash into the Pacific Ocean on a daily basis.

Since its discovery in the 1950s, the garbage patch has wrought significant havoc on marine life beyond filling the bellies of whales and other marine animals. One of the disadvantages of large floating objects that cross the sea is their ability to pick up hitchhikers, much like old exploratory ships once did. These stowaways make their way to new ecosystems and take off without any counter-species to keep their numbers in check. The common misconception, however, is that the garbage patch is a solid mass of bottles when most of its mass comes from much smaller plastic particles.

Ocean Cleanup Project

Founded in 2013, The Ocean Cleanup Project is the brainchild of 24-year-old Dutch innovator Boyan Slat. His goal, through his nonprofit organization, is to clean up the garbage circulating across 600,000 square miles of the Pacific Ocean with the help of his innovative cleanup device. The “cleanup crew,” Wilson, is a 2,000-foot-long floating tube with a tapered 10-foot skirt attached to the bottom.

Wilson drifts along with the ocean currents, collecting up to five tons of plastic per month. The net is emptied by boat every few months to bring the plastic debris back to land, where it will be turned into consumer goods that will be sold to support the Ocean Cleanup Project. While the system has faced some criticisms since its launch in October of 2018, the team behind the project is quick to respond and make any adjustments necessary to preserve ocean life. Anyone can follow the team’s updates on their website.

The Road Ahead

Slat’s timeline currently places the cleanup effort on course to reduce the amount of plastic waste adrift in the North Pacific Ocean by half in five years. After the Pacific Gyre has been cleaned, perhaps he will move his project to one of the other four ocean gyres, located in the South Pacific Ocean, the North and South Atlantic Ocen, and the Indian Ocean. In addition to the garbage patch off the coast of California, there is also a patch off the coast of Japan, though it is smaller than its eastern neighbor.

You can help reduce the amount of plastic waste generated annually by opting for reusable bottles, containers, and grocery bags. Refusing single-use plastics, cups, and boxes, and swapping sandwich bags for more sustainable options can also significantly reduce your impact. Finally, supporting legislation that pushes for plastic bans and volunteering at beach cleanups are also important ways to ensure that we keep the oceans clean.