There are over 5 TRILLION pieces of plastic in the ocean, but only 3.5 trillion fish.
I’m not really sure if that statistic is terrifying, or just sad.
Probably a little bit of both.
It doesn’t take a scientist to realize that it’s an alarming statistic, and it doesn’t take an environmental activist to realize that we must do something about it.
Similar to our global C02 emissions, the global concentration of plastics and microplastics in our oceans are continuing to grow at a frightening pace.
But before we dive into The Ocean Cleanup Project and their ambitious plans, it’s important we take a step back to realize some of the other direct threats that plastic plays towards the marine wildlife, the marine ecosystem, and even the health threats we receive through consumption of fish that have ingested plastic.
It’s everywhere and a lot of the environmental risks posed by it are pretty apparent. We’ve all seen that saddening images of birds and turtles get caught in nets or plastic bags – and it’s a depressing to know that over one million birds per year die from marine litter, and over 100,000 turtles!
This problem, as we mentioned in a previous article, has been largely exacerbated by the economic and industrial rise of Asian countries such as China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Thailand.
In addition to having poor environmental regulations, these countries also lack the sanitation, recycling, and waste collection infrastructure needed to manage and mitigate the waste and plastic spilling both intentionally and unintentionally into our oceans.
How quickly waste breaks down into our oceans matters, too. Plastic is amongst the slowest, but different types of plastic break down much faster than others. For example, small pieces of paper such as parking tickets will usually break down in 2-4 weeks while cigarette butts can take 1-5 years.
A lot of other non-plastic take a very long time to break down also – aluminum cans, foam cups, and tins cans can take between 60-80 years. Plastic bags take 10-20 years to break down, while plastic bottles can take over 450 years!
In the oceans, however, the breakdown of plastic is not equivocal to landfill biodegradability. Plastic causes DIFFERENT, and perhaps even WORSE problems after it breaks down.
Microplastic. Defined as roughly the size of a sesame seed or less, most of the plastic that breaks down eventually turns into microplastic.
Harder to spot and identify, and also harder to clean up, microplastics can be a much harder problem to solve. Microplastics are still being studied, but the impacts on marine wildlife that consumes them creates a whole host of long-term biological issues, ranging from infertility to increased cancer rates.
Additionally, many people who consume fish, shellfish, or other crustaceans may also be increasing their own risk of long-term health issues too.
The founder of the Ocean Clean Up, Boyan Slat, become an online celebrity when he first started the world’s largest and most ambitious ocean plastic collection and reduction effort as a teenager.
Supported by small donations around the world, as well as large corporations like Maersk and Deloitte, and even Slat’s home country’s government of the Netherlands, Slat’s plan has gotten global attention….and global funding.
Slat finally may have a solution for all types of plastic – from microplastics to large plastic crates.
Let the plastic come to you.
The Ocean Cleanup utilizes advance technology that effectively creates an artificial coastline that is nearly 2,000 feet long! This artificial coastline is made up of two components: a “floater” and a “skirt.”
The floater’s job is, you guessed it, to float. By creating buoyancy over the entire 2,000-foot system, it ensures that no plastic will go over the surface of the system.
Secondarily, the skirt is 3 feet deep that acts like an underwater net, so that no plastic escapes under the system.
After using algorithms to determine optimal deployment location of the system (generally placed within one of the 5 largest garbage patches in the ocean), the entire system takes advantage of natural ocean currents, and all energy necessary for the system is powered through solar energy.
Through use of optimal wind and wave energy for system mobility, this allows the system to move faster than the plastic, and this allows the system to slowly capture and envelope the plastic, regardless of whether they be microplastics or much larger plastic structures.
The first system launched from San Francisco on Sept 7, 2018 to tackle the largest garbage patch of them all, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch – we are excited to see their progress!
The Ocean Cleanup’s goal is to ultimately deploy 60 systems worldwide, and to clean up 90% of all ocean plastic pollution by 2040. In just 5 years, they hope to have cleaned up over 50% of plastic in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
Of course, no matter how well they do (and we really hope they hit all of their targets!), we still MUST reduce consumption of plastics worldwide.
Recently, the EU voted to ban many single use plastics such as plastic bags, straws, and fast food container packaging. We think (and hope), this is the first of many new regulations around the world that reduce plastic consumption.
We applaud this effort (so much we wrote a blog post about it!) and think that in order to stop the source of plastic in our oceans, we need to greatly reduce consumption, while also encouraging recycled plastic as much as possible (especially plastics not made from petroleum, like vegetable-based plastics).
Did you know that one of the most common and overlooked places to reduce plastic is your wardrobe?
95% of all new clothing is made with at least some polyester, and it’s overtaken cotton over a decade ago as the world’s number one textile fiber. The trend will continue to increase.
We can’t afford to wait for governments, businesses and NGO’s to take action. Although we don’t have an easy answer to a problem this complicated, each of us can take action TODAY with how we spend, consume, and behave.
It’s time for us to be individually and collectively conscious of our plastic footprint.