Of plastic and microplastics: The not-so-great Great Pacific Garbage Patch

News flash — though hardly a surprise. The vast patch of garbage floating in the Pacific Ocean is much more extensive than previously thought — bigger, wider and choked with fishing nets, plastic containers and the detritus of human consumption on an unimaginable scale, a scale not even the most pessimistic of scientific projections  predicted.

The discovery, if it can be called that, has touched off an End-of-Days debate: Garbage waste and the degradation of the environment may be an even more pressing concern to humanity than climate change.

Given the recent alarm over climate change — among those who read and follow the news, anyway — that’s saying a lot.

The extent of the garbage patch was first projected in 2014, when a modified C-130 Hercules aircraft — funded by The Ocean Cleanup, an NGO sponsored in part by the Dutch government — did a fly-past over the central core of the patch, the garbage-patch equivalent of the eye of a hurricane, where the most intense winds are concentrated.

©NOAA/US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

©NOAA/US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Here are the numbers. The core of the garbage patch covers some 1.6 million square kilometres (618,0000 sq miles), more than twice the size of France.

As with the man-made Great Wall of China, the not-so-great man-made Great Pacific Garbage Patch is said to be seen from space, though at least one recent report — on National Geographic’s website — disputes that.

And while that same report says most of the patch is discarded fishing gear, not discarded bottles and straws, there’s little doubting that plastics — convenient, relatively inexpensive to produce and durable to a fault — are at the centre of the increasingly urgent debate over environmental sustainability.

According to the most conservative estimates from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), more than 5 trillion pieces of plastic are floating in our oceans. By 2014, four years ago, more than 311 million tons of plastic were produced around the globe, a 20-fold increase over 1964.

With plastic being an indelible part of our day-to-day lives, it follows that much more plastic is being produced today. According to research published recently in Scientific Reports, at least 79,000 tons of that plastic is floating in the sprawling patch of detritus. Around 8 million tons of plastic end up in the oceans every year, where it washes up on beaches or drifts out to sea.

This matters because “the large stuff” — loosely defined as any discarded plastic-based item larger than half-a-metre in size — will, over time, decompose into microplastics, which as we now know, are impossible to get rid of and can turn up anywhere, from the fish we eat to the bottled water we drink. 

It’s a matter of debate, too, what effect microplastics are having on the food chain. Not enough time has gone by for scientists to pin down exactly what’s happening and why, let alone how to fix it. Large pieces of plastic break down very slowly, over hundreds of years.

Separate papers by UNEP and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation predict there will be more plastic than fish in the world’s oceans by 2050.

Recent trends in scientific studies show that, if anything, predictions tend to be underestimated rather than overestimated. The world’s polar ice caps are melting at a faster rate than scientists initially projected; rising seas, once considered a problem that future generations would have to face, are instead becoming a problem now, in low-lying land masses like the Maldives in the Indian Ocean, and are believed to be the cause of much of the world’s wild, unpredictable shifts in weather.

©Marta Albé

©Marta Albé

(The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, for those not in the know, is a UK registered charity, founded in 2009, dedicated to inspiring a generation to rethink, redesign and build a better future through the framework of a sustainable, “circular economy,” a future without waste, in which business, the environment and resources work together, where every product is designed for multiple cycles of use, where manufacturing cycles are deliberately aligned, and where what we perceive to be “waste” — junk, refuse, damaged goods and unwanted products —  is instead used, “repurposed” if you like, as raw material for a new production cycle, thus feeding into the so-called “circular economy.”)

What can be done?

The Ocean Cleanup has vowed to take a “moonshot” effort to clean up half the Great Pacific garbage patch within five years, starting this summer, by mopping up the rubbish using a system of large floating barriers with underwater screens that capture and concentrate plastic into a confined area, which can then be scooped out of the ocean. In theory.

©Calstone Inc.

©Calstone Inc.

A prototype will be launched this summer in San Francisco. The prototype is designed to collect five tons of waste a month. If successful, it will be fellowed by dozens of other specially designed booms, measuring up to 2 km (1.2 miles) in length.

The moonshot comes with caveats, of course. The system is not designed to catch microplastics — defined as any item measuring less than 10 millimetres (0.39 inches) — which, recent studies are now suggesting, could prove to be the more long-term problem, and the harder of the two to get a handle on.

There’s an urgent need to get in there quickly and clean it up, though the easier solution is to ensure it doesn’t get into the ocean in the first place.

Many countries are already onboard, kin principle if not in practice. Nearly 200 countries signed onto a UN resolution in 2017 intended to slow the deluge of plastic being dumped into the world’s oceans. The resolution has no stated timetable, however, and is not legally binding.

Anyone and everyone can make a start, though, by turning away from single-use plastic, whether it6’s cutlery, straws or plastic bottles that, for whatever reason, can’t be recycled.

“One of the easiest steps is changing the way we use and discard plastic products,” California-based marine ecologist Dr. Clare Steele told The Guardian’s Oliver MIlman, only last week. Common sense, in other words.