Islands of Garbage
Ocean is vast, deep and big. Our planet’s mysterious life forms reside in the Ocean beds. But, one non-living, non bio-degradable thing is extracting the life out of our Oceans. Marine-based plastic wastes are set to create one of the greatest environmental disasters of all time. However, unlike dangerous climatic changes, we don’t hear much about this problem. It is commonly assumed that all pollutants, dumped in the sea, would be diluted and get disappeared over a course of time. But, in reality, all of the pieces plastics we have used in our life time are still out there somewhere and a lot of it ends up in our oceans. It is roughly estimated that around 6 million tonnes of wastes makes its way into the sea on a yearly basis. More than 140 million tonnes of plastic wastes have already occupied the Ocean beds (and everyday it is increasing by tonnes).
In the North Pacific Ocean, large area stretching from Japan to Hawaii is littered with islands of garbage, which is known as “The Great Pacific Garbage Patch” or “Pacific Trash Vortex.” Most of the trashes dumped in the ocean are released hundreds of miles away from land, but it still washes up on beaches and coastal areas. We all know plastics are not bio-degradable. It takes them nearly 1,000 years to break down. At the same time, plastics are photo-degradable. When exposed to sunlight or UV light, the plastics crack into tiny toxic particles. Eventually, Oceans are filled with what scientists call us “Plastic Soup” – billions of microscopic particles of plastic. Many fish species confuse small plastic particles with plankton.
Although oil spills, toxic wastes and other synthetic trashes released into Ocean also cause pollution, it can’t be compared with the harm done by plastics. If polluting the Ocean doesn’t bother us, then the next biggest threat these plastic poses is to our food chain. Mike Moore, one of the first persons to document the Pacific Ocean garbage has said that, “35 percent of the fish that we caught out there had an average of two pieces of plastic in their stomach.” Fishes are only a part of this problem. Sea turtles, birds like Albatross and various rare marine organisms are found to have plastics in their digestive system. In a few decades, the plastic wastes could wreak havoc on the entire ocean food chain, from bottom feeders, to predators and on to humans.
Recently scientists found out that Arctic Ocean holds trillions of plastic particles, which are slowly getting released into world’s oceans as the polar cap melts. The ‘micro plastics’ debris littering in Arctic is said to be 1,000 times greater than that floating ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch.’ The researchers estimate that even if we, humans stop putting garbage into the Oceans, these garbage patches would increase gradually in the next hundred years. The question largely looms, as of now, is: can we get these wastes out from the ocean in the next few decades?
Yes, says a 20 year old Dutch aeronautical engineering student Boyan Slat. In his TEDx talk, he began like this: “Once there was the Stone Age, then the Bronze Age, and now we are in the middle of the Plastic Age.” Slat is a scuba-diving enthusiast and he was horrified by the amount of floating plastic bags in the sea. At the age of fourteen, he won the Best Idea of South-Holland award, and was honored with a Guinness World Record. At 16 years of age, without much money, he began his fight against plastic pollution. He and his team eventually raised $2 million to design ‘Ocean Cleanup’ contraption, which can funnel garbage into specific collection points. He worked with nearly 100 people and has also recently released a 500+ pages feasibility study, which analyzed the cost details and how the technology works.
Slat’s device deploys a V-shaped floating barrier, which would be placed in the path of major Ocean current and anchored to the sea bed. The 30-mile V-shaped floating arms would collect trashes floating three miles below the surface, allowing the marine organisms to pass underneath. Slat’s report estimates that the trash collection rate would be 65 cubic meters per day. The plastic wastes would be later picked up by ships and all these costs might be reduced by recycling the collected plastics for other uses. Slat and his team are now looking for backers to get their prototype into the ocean.
One limitation of Slat’s machine is that it can’t collect the vast number of ‘Plastic Soups’, which are microscopic and distributed over greater depths in the ocean. It also must be understood that the ‘cleaning up’ machine is just a part of the solution. Slat, himself admits that the real challenge we face is putting a stop to plastic pollution in the first place.