In the middle of the Pacific Ocean, a mass of garbage spread across 1.6 million square kilometers ceaselessly swirls the depths. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is one of five areas worldwide where debris like discarded fishing gear, microplastics and other trash collect, thanks to rotating ocean currents.
Millions of dollars have been poured into efforts to clean up the Pacific Garbage Patch in particular. But the path to a cleaner ocean has been filled with failures of technology and misconceptions about what it will actually take to clean it up -- and if it's even possible at this point to do so.
"Because of the large size of the patches, how far they are from land, and the difficulty of removing marine debris from the open ocean, it may not be possible to entirely clean up garbage patches," says Nancy Wallace, director of the Marine Debris Program at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Garbage patches aren't giant island-like masses made of trash, but more like a soup, with tiny pieces of plastic floating around like pepper. Except instead of adding flavor, these plastics are actively harming marine life.
These microplastics -- plastic fragments less than 5mm in length, which make up most of the trash in the garbage patches -- are extremely difficult to remove due to their small size, Wallace says. Plus, the areas where debris accumulates move and change throughout the year, as wind and water currents shift. Not to mention that collecting and transporting debris from the open ocean back to shore for disposal can also be very costly, she adds.
"Finding a cost-effective technology solution is an extremely daunting task," Wallace says. Despite this, there are things organizations and individuals can do to both clean up the oceans and to keep more plastic from entering them in the first place.
Discovering the patch and its microplastics
Charles Moore, founder and research director of the Algalita Marine Research and Education Foundation, discovered the Great Pacific Garbage Patch back in 1997.
"It's not an 'aha' moment," Moore said. "It wasn't me coming across an island. It was just a feeling of unease that I couldn't come on deck without seeing something pass by the boat for a week, over 1,000 miles of open ocean in the middle of nowhere."
Moore worked with other scientists to study the area and went back in 1999 to take samples. "That was the real discovery, when our sample showed there were six kilos of plastic for every kilo of zooplankton out there -- there was more plastic than life in the ocean," Moore said. "That's what really made a dent in the world consciousness about this issue."
Microplastics account for 8% of the total mass, but 94% of the estimated 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic floating in the area, according to a study published in the journal Scientific Reports by the Ocean Cleanup's team.
Humans are unknowingly eating plastic, too -- we just don't know exactly how it's affecting us yet. A 2019 research review published in the journal Environmental Science Technology found that just by eating, drinking and breathing, the average American ingests at least 74,000 microplastic particles each year. And that analysis only looked at 15% of the foods in an average diet, so it's likely that we're actually consuming far more plastic than we know.
Trying (and failing) to clean it up
In 2013, then-18-year-old Boyan Slat determined that a problem as big as cleaning the world's oceans of plastic could have a solution in tech. What started as a high school science project turned into the nonprofit The Ocean Cleanup that year. Its current goal? Build a tool that could reduce 90% of floating ocean plastic by the year 2040.
"Our approach is twofold -- one, we want to clean up the legacy pollution and plastic that has been accumulating for many decades in the ocean," Slat says. "And secondly, we want to intercept plastic in rivers before it reaches the oceans."
The organization developed System 001, or Wilson -- a multimillion dollar tool involving a 2,000-foot-long U-shaped floating barrier that would collect plastics from the ocean's surface. After lots of media attention, including being named one of Time's best inventions of 2015, the device was launched from San Francisco in September 2018 for testing. But things didn't go as planned. Namely, the tool made for picking up plastic wasn't actually holding on to that plastic. And then a fracture caused a 59-foot section of the system to detach.
The news didn't come as a surprise to many scientists, including Moore, who talked to Slat about his plans before System 001's launch. "I told him it has no chance, and he insisted that he was going to do it," Moore says. "And then nothing worked and everything broke."
The problem was in large part due to the system's inability to stand up to the ocean's instability and wave patterns, Moore says. But Slat says as a first attempt, it was successful and a good place to start.
"System 001 was a beta system, a first of its kind to ever attempt anything like this," Slat says. "It proved successful in several ways, despite the fatigue fracture (which was caused by stressors from the dovetail connection) and the inconsistent speed differential, to name a few: the system maintained its U-shape and reoriented with the wind, it collected and concentrated plastic, and no environmental impact issues were observed. The lessons learned from System 001 were invaluable to our iterative design process."
The Ocean Cleanup has since redesigned its tool, launching System 001/B, which was more successful at picking up ocean trash. It plans to launch System 002 next year, Slat says. "It's been quite a ride so far," he says, going from "scrappy startup mode" and a volunteer staff to nearly 100 full-time employees and millions of dollars in donations. "Now we're at this juncture where we're transitioning from the developer phase to scale-up phase," Slat says.
The organization plans to launch System 002 in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch next year. It's also begun its work on rivers, which are the main source of ocean pollution, Slat says. Some 80% of plastic pollution that flows from rivers stems from 1,000 rivers worldwide, according to The Ocean Cleanup. Its solution is a solar-powered tool called The Interceptor, a boat-like structure that extracts plastic from rivers autonomously.
What you can do
With the logistical and financial difficulties involved in cleaning the patch, NOAA and other organizations focus instead on preventing trash from entering the ocean in the first place, through cleaning up shorelines and other efforts.
"If you think about an overflowing sink, the first step before cleaning up the water is to turn the tap off. That is exactly how prevention works," Wallace says. "By acting to prevent marine debris, we can stop this problem from growing."
Technology can play a role: For example, anyone can use the Marine Debris Tracker App to locate old fishing traps and other garbage that would otherwise enter the ocean. You can record the debris location through GPS and add photos and descriptions.
The rest will largely be up to individual action, Moore says, like shopping locally at farmers' markets, eliminating plastic single-use products like plastic bags and straws, and creating more of a refill infrastructure, where you bring your own reusable jars to fill with things like food and cleaning products, he adds.
"Local self-reliance is going to be the key to stopping plastic pollution," Moore says.