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How to Measure a Monster

Quantifying the contents of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch

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Children’s toys, broken electronics, fragments of plastic, and abandoned fishing nets. It sounds like a line from poet Pablo Neruda’s Ode to Things. But instead, it’s an account of the debris swirling between Hawaii and California in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP) as observed by oceanographer Laurent Lebreton and a team of scientists.

A recent study published in the journal Scientific Reports has, for the first time, quantified the Great Pacific Garbage Patch’s (GPGP) dimensions and content. It determined that an estimated 1.8 trillion pieces of flotsam cover an area roughly four times the size of California—four to 16 times bigger than previously thought.

Earlier attempts to analyze the GPGP’s ocean plastic concentrations were gathered from samples collected with surface trawls. Because the small net size and limited surface area covered, scientists were concerned with the accuracy of these studies and that the data may have omitted larger plastic objects such as bottles, buoys, and fishing nets.

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Therefore, for this study, researchers conducted multi-vessel trawl sampling over the course of three months to gain an accurate measurement of the distribution of buoyant plastics. The team also conducted aerial surveys to gather geo-referenced imagery and refine their count of larger debris particles. They compared their datasets with historical accounts in order to evaluate the rate of plastic accumulation in the GPGP.

They discovered that the GPGP is growing “exponentially.”

More plastic was produced in the last decade than ever before. Today’s global annual plastic consumption has reached over 320 million tons, according to a recent New York Times article. Around 60% of that plastic is less dense than seawater, meaning that it may join the 87,000 tons’ worth of debris floating in the GPGP’s oceanic gyre.

These statistics are alarming. And it seems that, as an industry, there must be a way for us to actively support efforts to find a solution. How can we leverage our organizations’ current investment in technologies related to filtration and separation? How can we tap into the wealth of collective experience gathered by our colleagues?

“…this ocean is yours, and mine,” wrote Pablo Neruda in Ode to Things, “these buttons and wheels and little forgotten treasures, fans upon which love has scattered its blossoms, glasses, knives and scissors—all bear the trace of someone’s fingers on their handle or surface…”

In what ways do you think the water industry can help decrease the accumulation of plastics in the GPGP? WE_bug_web

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  1. Quite simply, the water sector can do more to reduce plastic production by promoting consumption of tap water through local delivery of simple, inexpensive engagement strategies.

  2. This in no way answers your question as to how the water industry might help, but it’s relevant to the topic overall. There was a young Swedish inventor I remembered reading about a few years ago who had devised a plan for an ocean capable vessel to drift with the GPGP and process the plastic into reusable raw material. I don’t know if it’s still being developed or was determined to be unprofitable, or has fatal development flaws. If it’s the profitability factor only, perhaps the WTO could add an internationally enforced surcharge to all products containing virgin plastic, and fund the operation to achieve a neutral cost. Or we could do the predictable human response and watch it continue growing exponentially, since the concept “exponentially” is beyond the comprehension of the reptilian brain.

    1. Thanks, Tom. The link you provided is to the technology I was referring to. Boyan Slat is the inventor, and he came up with the concept at age 16 (or maybe younger). I saw a presentation at Ted-x that he did in 2013. The system uses ocean currents as its power source and is sublimely simple.

  3. A big problem is that no one “owns” it. It’s in international waters. We don’t know where it came from, but we can agree it’s a global problem.

    I recall reading about the young hero Chad Pregracke of . He was bothered by seeing garbage along the Mississippi River near his home, and he had a little skiff, so he just started going out and picking stuff up… it’s become quite an organization doing good work.

    That’s what we need… a visionary who pulls together the assets and team and just starts doing something. Not waiting for the UN, or some broad coalition of forces to join and form a committee to explore all the impacts… just someone to go out and grab some stuff, and start trying to figure out what to do.

    87,000 tons of plastic is surely a lot (174m pounds.) But the largest Landfill in the US, Roosevelt Regional in WA takes in 2.5m tons…If someone showed up with 5 tons of plastic, who would take it? Could we get a grant for that? What if, instead of taking jet-set vacations to exotic locals or being the first to ride in Virgin Galactic, expeditions & competitions were organized to the GPGP to collect flotsam?

    We need an X-prize for clean oceans. Anyone know Peter Diamandis?

  4. Why is no one commenting on the global/ocean warming effect of this disaster ? This plastic debris field is similar in effect to the plastic covers used to heat swimming pools. If this can be shown to be a major contributor to global and ocean warming, which affects all nations, international funds and efforts will become a priority.

    1. Excellent observation, Ernest. Intuitively, it makes sense to think that the warming effect of this plastic cover must be significant.

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