What connects a pair of jeans, a world-first in running shoe development by Adidas, a solar-powered seabin and a floating 'V', “100 times bigger than anything that's ever been deployed in the ocean”? One of the saddest terms ever coined – ocean garbage patches.
It was first invented to describe an area in the central North Pacific Ocean off the coast of California in 1988. It is characterized by an incredibly high concentration of pelagic plastics, chemical sludge and other debris, trapped by currents which created relatively stable waters. Estimates of its size vary – from about twice the size of Texas where pieces of plastic outnumber sea-life six to one, up to “twice the size of the continental United States”, as reported by The Independent. This patch and others like it – the Eastern garbage patch for example (1999) and the North Atlantic garbage patch– are not easily visible, because the debris consists of very small pieces almost invisible to the naked eye, lying suspended beneath the ocean’s surface.
Not a single one of us in our industry can be unfamiliar with ocean debris like plastic bottles, straws, grocery bags, discarded fishing gear such as nets, lines or buoys, micro pellets and beads and microfibers from clothes. 8 million tonnes are washed into our seas every year. Plastic in the ocean breaks down into such small pieces that ecoblueblog.com uses this stat to get the message across: “Pieces of plastic from a one liter bottle could end up on every mile of beach throughout the world.” It also reports that more than a million sea birds and mammals are killed annually by plastic in the oceans, and 44% of all seabird species, 22% of crustaceans, all sea turtle species and increasing numbers of fish have been found with plastic in or around their bodies.
The impact on its environment and what to do about it is one of the hottest topic of conversation right now, and action is being taken to address from a micro to macro level. At the smaller end – on the high street – you see the likes of G-STAR RAW and Adidas partner with the environmental initiative Parley for the Oceans and create denim and trainers made from recycled plastic recovered from the sea.
A step up from that and you have the Seabin, invented by the Australian surfers Andrew Turton and Pete Ceglinski. If you haven’t seen it, it is exactly as you probably imagined – a floating bin, which is fitted to pontoons and submerged, then using a pump to suck out rubbish from the sea surface. Ceglinski says, “It catches everything floating in the water – plastic bottles, paper, oil, fuel and detergent.” Their latest prototype uses a solar-powered pump and has been granted permission to be trialed in the Balearic islands. Agreements have been signed to make the ins available in 17 different countries by the start of 2017. As they say on their Twitter account (@Seabin_project), “one step at a time, stay small – think big!”
Then on the other end of the scale, you have the controversial project termed The Ocean Cleanup, masterminded by 21 year-old Dutch inventor Boyan Slat. He has raised $2.2m in crowdfunding so far and believes his project is capable of cleaning up 40% of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch’s plastic pollution in 10 years. He told The Economist, “If we don’t start to clean it up soon, the big stuff will fragment down into smaller pieces. When these tiny pieces are ingested by fish they bring toxic chemicals from the ocean into the food chain – ultimately increasing the risk of infertility, birth defect and cancer.”
He has developed essentially an artificial coastline – a floating barrier – to catch the plastic and believes when it is completed by 2020 it will be 100km long stretching between Hawaii and California. From above you see only a colored floating line, beneath are screens that extend down like a skirt. The theory is that sea currents can pass beneath the screens to prevent by catch of animals and plants. The plastic is drawn to a central silo from where it can be taken away for recycling.
Critics including physical oceanographer Kim Martini and biological oceanographer Miriam Goldstein say he hasn’t fully considered implications of bio fouling, potential for by catch of species living in the areas, and that he has substantially “misinterpreted oceanography, ecology, engineering and marine debris distribution.” Those concerns won’t have gone away after Slat’s recent trial of a 100m line where, as newatlas.com puts it, “the Dutch entrepreneur gave the system a 30% chance of breaking. Unfortunately for Slat these fears have now materialized with the team having to haul the barrier back into shore after being bent out of shape by angry Dutch seas.”
However in characteristic form, Slat wasted no time in developing a more robust system, and says he chose the North Sea deliberately because of its nasty conditions, where “minor storms can cause more violent conditions than once-in-a-hundred year storms in the Pacific.” He wrote in a recent blog that the team will be reinstalling the new system at the North Sea test site in the near future.
You can have all the nay-Sayers you like. But it’s great to have the believers too. Good luck to them and the Great Ocean Cleanup projects!