The Floating Landfill

by Chloe Gummer on March 28, 2014

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The Pacific Garbage Patch is one of the most fascinating environmental concerns I have ever heard about. Just thinking of the name brings up imagery of an island-sized landfill, floating somewhere in the vast Pacific Ocean. The reality is that there are several patches that have formed due to the patterns of oceanic surface currents, known as gyres. Another misconception is that this floating trash ‘island’ is made up of the same debris that we find in our dumps and landfills. In fact, most of the trash is broken down plastic particles that do not just float on the ocean surface, but throughout the water column (the area between the surface and ocean floor) as well. Because of this, removing all of these microplastics from the ocean will take a much greater effort than just skimming garbage off the surface!

If you have heard about this garbage patch before, you may have read the claims that it is the size of Texas, or even twice the size of Texas! Scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration say that they cannot make claims about the expanse of the plastic debris throughout the ocean, because it is constantly moving throughout the water column and with the moving gyres. Some suggest that even referring to the debris as patches is incorrect, as the microplastics can be found in just about any part of the world’s oceans.

The presence of these small plastic particles in the ocean water is harmful to aquatic life, and “serves as a transport medium for pollutants (including PCB and DDT), accumulating in the food chain”. It is estimated that the presence of this microplastic garbage in the oceans is linked to the deaths of hundreds of thousands aquatic animals annually.

So that leaves us asking, what can be done about this issue? One incredible idea came from Boyan Slat, a teen from the Netherlands. He developed a clean-up solution while in secondary school, and has since turned his idea into The Ocean Cleanup Array. The concept is seawater processors that can essentially filter the oceans of the plastic debris. In his TEDx Talk in 2012, Boyan explained that the researcher and discoverer of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, Charles Moore, “estimates it would take 79,000 years to remediate [the issue]. However, I believe the Great Pacific Garbage Patch can completely clean itself in just five years.”

Watch Boyan Slat’s TEDx Talk here:

While it is great to think of clean-up solutions to this important issue, I think it is also equally important to focus on prevention! An estimated 80 percent of the plastics in the ocean are due to land runoff. This suggests that through education and policy, humans could greatly reduce the amount of plastic that enters into the ocean in the first place. One of the simplest actions we can all take to prevent the runoff of plastics into the ocean is to eliminate or cut back on using single-use plastics, such as bags and bottles.


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