by Reid Patton
Out of sight, out of mind. When you throw away a plastic Coke bottle, do you ever consider where it will end up? Each year, 10 million tons of plastic finds its way into our oceans, whose currents assemble it into five gigantic, circulating heaps called trash gyres, each one the size of Texas. About 80% of the plastic in the oceans comes from land, and 100% of it comes from humans.  Unsurprisingly, the consequences of these gargantuan storage heaps are far-reaching, and a new solution is desperately needed.
To threaten the wide-reaching diversity of our oceans and the existence of the species within them would be a dire mistake. This is precisely what the gyres are doing. There is no record of plastic ever fully decomposing and returning to organic material. But at sea and on shore under sunlight, the movement of waves and abrasion of larger plastic items cause them to oxidize and break into smaller pieces, pieces small enough to be ingested by fish, which are themselves later consumed by other creatures, including humans. Ingested plastic asphyxiates birds and suffocates fish. Many seabirds and their offspring have been found dead with their stomachs filled with bottle tops, balloons, and lighters. Masses of tangled plastics in the gyres entrap whales and other sea creatures. Once an animal dies, its body decomposes and all that remains are the plastics, which are then released back into the ocean. Plastics in the oceans also function as chemical sponges; they absorb pollutants like POPs, persistent organic pollutants, into their chemical structures. POPs are some of the most damaging pollutants found in the oceans. Thus, many of the animals eating these plastic debris pieces (and humans then eating these animals) will also be ingesting highly toxic pollutants. And these are only the known and direct consequences of these massive waste bins; undoubtedly, if gone untouched, they will continue to harm our oceans and our health.
To date, there are mainly preventative solutions to keep the plastic vortex from growing, but clean up efforts are limited. The size of the trash heaps is so immense; it would take a consortium of nations each committing billions of dollars to clean up. Furthermore, the gyres are in international waters, leaving no one in particular in charge of the areas. This problem can be turned into a financial opportunity. According to Forbes, the “green market” is projected to double in size to $2.74 trillion by 2020. Technology now allows single use plastics to be converted into useable oil products with relatively low energy consumption and without byproducts harmful to the environment. Once people begin to figure out a way to profit from cleaning up these plastic gyres, it will trigger competition and people and companies will race for the opportunity to profit from cleaning the seas. It is an engineering challenge, but many, like 19 year old Boyan Slat who Ocean Cleanup Array that could remove 7,250,000 tons of plastic waste from the world’s oceans, are trying to fix the problem. In an ideal world, specialized vessels would sail into the gyres and collect single use plastics that would then be converted to oil to power the ship and sell in the marketplace. These vessels, sitting in the middle of the gyres and, conveniently, in the middle of many commercial shipping routes, could also serve as re-fueling stations for ocean going vessels. A new type of oil platform would be created where oil is mined from the trash of the oceans instead of the earth for fuel.
I recognize that this is an idealistic and futuristic solution to the problem—one that cannot be mandated through law and policy. So while the engineers and environmentalists of the world are jointly working towards alleviating the plastic problem that humans have created, environmental lobbyist should work towards getting bills passed to regulate how big manufacturing companies dispose of their plastic waste. American manufacturers release around 4 billion pounds of pollutants into America’s air and waterways annually—many of these pollutants plastics. Laws should be put in place requiring giant companies in manufacturing industries to recycle their plastics.
Some cities like Seattle and states like Connecticut have made mandatory recycling laws that fine citizens who throw away recyclable materials. In Nantucket, MA, garbage has to be separated into glass, plastic, aluminum, and all other trash. If one of these trash sections contains contents belonging to the others (like aluminum in the plastic trash bag or glass in the aluminum trash bag), the garbage collectors will not remove that bag of trash. Lobbyists need to urge their mayors and governors to implement recycling laws. I think every city and state should have mandated recycling laws like Nantucket, and to incentivize people to follow these laws, citizens should have to pay for their trash but not for their recycling. The combination of two policies—separated trash/ recycling and paying for trash, will mitigate the growth of the plastic gyres because less plastic will end up in landfills and then the oceans. I do not believe that making these two policies national laws would be very feasible, and so concerned environmentalist on a city and state level need to take a more grassroots effort to push their mayors and governors to implement these stricter recycling laws.
It’s interesting that you mention POPs and the propensity of plastics to absorb them. POPs include a wide range of chemicals and toxins that are banned in many countries, but are still in use in developing countries. If I’m not mistaken, they include DDTs and their degradants and other pesticides. Given the persistency of microplastics and their ability to act as a sponge, as you mentioned, and a vehicle floating across whole oceans, one can imagine that this would allow adsorbed POPs to cross whole oceans and still affect areas where they are banned.
I like how you acknowledge that the problem of plastics on the high seas is one that must be solved by a combination of scientific innovation and policy changes. This attacks the problem, in my opinion, from both ends: cleaning up what’s already there and making sure that the problem isn’t growing via new additions to the gyres. I also think it’s interesting that you propose a sort of tax on trash to incentivize people to recycle. I think it’s a good idea, but undoubtedly one that would meet opposition. I think people understand money and are inherently conscious of the monetary value of goods. So, applying a monetary value to trash will undoubtedly make people more conscious of their actions regarding trash and recycling.
This is a very interesting, albeit, scary blog post about an issue that a lot of people seem to know about but haven’t done anything to solve. You suggest two different kinds of policy to mitigate the issue of the trash vortexes: one based on clean up and the other on prevention. In my opinion, this two pronged approach is the best way for us to make progress. While money and time are spent on research and development for technology that can clean up our oceans and turn plastics into fuels, we need policy that can improve our plastic and other trash more quickly. In this way, we can keep our trash as small as possible while waiting for technology that will enable us to cleanup what is already there. You mentioned progressive policies in cities that are doing their part to reduce the amount of materials that end up in a landfill or ocean – these policies need to be expanded across the United States and globe in order to have a proper impact. Other policies that are interesting and helping to reduce our trash include the bans on plastic water bottles and grocery bags. These policies entirely remove the garbage from our system and even reduces the amount that we can recycle.
One concern that I have with your idealistic solution though, is that should we perfect our methods of ocean cleanup, would we then not concern ourselves with producing, using, and tossing plastic? Perhaps this wouldn’t matter since we would use the plastics to regenerate fuel, but this could be an unintended consequence. Another consideration we must make when determining policy to fix this vortex, is who must pay for it? An ocean dump doesn’t maintain borders and presumably not all of the garbage is from one source country. The undertaking of funding a cleanup of this size is huge and it would be a political mess to determine whose responsibility the bill is.
I really like how you contrast more regulation- and market-based solutions to marine plastic pollution with technological advances in the kinds of plastics that are ubiquitous in our consumptive society. I did not know that there is no record of plastic ever biodegrading: while I understood (vaguely) the concept of photodegradation and textbooks told me that plastics took a “very long time” to degrade, I assumed it happened eventually. What worries me is how ideas of gyre cleanup are reactive: although operations that remove waste from ocean gyres are extremely necessary, having an effective system of cleanup removes some of the incentive to develop new, more degradable forms of packaging. Maybe this is the radical idealist in me, but I think we must simultaneously think of ways to clean up marine environments and develop alternatives to our current system of consume-and-dispose political economy.
It’s funny you mention Boyan Slat – when I was applying to college his ideas of an Ocean Cleanup Array were just becoming popular, and he felt like the wunderkind of the day. Me, emerging from a school of overachievers and seeing this kid who had already invented something brilliant, we all harbored feelings of envy and dislike towards the idea of him. His ideas for gyre cleanup are brilliant (while perhaps riding the current focus on autonomous technologies) and I think show a lot of promise for a world in which gyres look more like loci of ocean currents and less like clogged bathrooms.
I wrote my blog on the same topic! I like the reference you make to the Coke bottle because it’s such a widely used product and no one ever thinks about where it goes once it’s empty. After doing my own research I was shocked about how much trash ends up in the oceans and on the shores. The pictures were horrific. The Pacific Garbage Patch is larger than the size of Texas and it would take years to clean. Unfortunately, like you said, it isn’t solely a matter of cleaning up the plastic. The plastic in the ocean has so many other negative effects on ecosystems, i.e. absorbing toxic chemicals. I’m not exactly sure how to curb that besides eliminating plastic debris from the source. In order to do this I think a market for biodegradable materials or reusable materials needs to be created. But, I don’t think a new market will be implemented easily or successful, especially because it’s so easy and cheap for companies to use plastic when packaging or manufacturing.
With an issue like a trash vortex in the middle of the ocean [technically coming from non point sources], it’s hard to place blame on one party. So, without being able to point fingers, no one internalizes any of the costs of using plastic. It would be hard to decide who is going to clean it up and who is going to pay for it. Lastly, I like your idea about separate trash and recycling!
 The trash vortex. (2015). Retrieved April 10, 2016, from http://www.greenpeace.org/international/en/campaigns/oceans/fit-for-the-future/pollution/trash-vortex/
 Wolchover, Natalie. (2011, March 02). Why Doesn’t Plastic Biodegrade? Retrieved April 20, 2015, from http://www.livescience.com/
 What’s the Problem. (2016). Retrieved from http://www.gyrecleanup.org/problem-summary/
 Rojas, V. (2014, June 30). Growth In Green Bond Market Underscores Need For Market Standards. Retrieved April 10, 2016 from http://www.forbes.com/
 Singh, T. (2013, March 26). 19–Year-Old Develops Ocean Cleanup Array. Retrieved April 10, 2016 from http://inhabitat.com/
 What’s the problem
 Why Is Recycling Not Mandatory in All U.S. Cities? (2016). Retrieved from http://environment.about.com/od/recycling/a/must_recycle.ht