Turning the plastic tide: System 001 and us

This weekend in Alameda, San Francisco, something will happen that could change the course of events for life on earth

On September 8 The Ocean Cleanup will launch it’s first cleanup system in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. For the last 18 months I’ve been eagerly awaiting this moment and it is SO exciting to think we are just days away from starting to turn things around for the major global environmental disaster that is ocean plastic pollution. While our future would look very bleak without this incredible initiative, The Ocean Cleanup will not solve plastic pollution single-handedly. We also need to tackle it at the SOURCE and that means breaking our decades-long disposable plastic habit.

A depiction of the floating cleanup system to be towed from San Francisco out to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch this weekend (image: The Ocean Cleanup)

In 1997, somewhere between Hawai’i and California, Captain Charles Moore discovered the Great Pacific Garbage Patch on his way home from a yacht race. Completely oblivious to this, I was busy with the final year of my environmental science degree, heading shortly after into local government where I would be educating local residents about picking up their dog poo and washing their car on the lawn, to prevent pollution from entering local waterways and the ocean.

It wasn’t until 15 years later that I heard about an island of garbage the size of Texas in the Pacific Ocean. Concerned but not sure how to process this I just went on with my life, until last year I happened to see a documentary about the extent and impacts of plastic pollution in the world’s oceans. I learned the ‘island’ was not solid ground, but a swirling mass of plastic, that there was not just one but five of these garbage patches, that the plastic is having alarming impacts on marine wildlife and that it breaks down into microplastics, which are EVERYWHERE, even in ice at the north and south poles, ultimately impacting US. It was after learning all of this that my heart sank. I mean really plummeted. I was devastated. It was SO much to take in, and in less than one hour. I just kept thinking “How could we let this happen?”.

Now estimated to be three times the size of France, and growing, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch comprises around 1.8 trillion pieces or 80,000 tonnes of plastic. I find ‘trillion’ a difficult number to comprehend, but after visiting a major ‘gateway’ to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch last year, near Ka Lae on the Big Island of Hawai’i (read more here), I could better understand the extent of the impact we’ve created.

Countless plastic fragments washed ashore, east of Ka Lae, Big Island, Hawai’i (image: Hawaii University Marine Program)

After coming to accept the harsh reality of ocean plastic pollution, my mind then went to how we’re going to clean it up, IF that was even possible. But within the next month or so I discovered that someone out there was tackling this. And in a BIG way. And this took me from a place of devastation to one of hope. And tremendous gratitude.

In 2013, 18 year old engineer and inventor Boyan Slat created The Ocean Cleanup. The initiative started from a crowd funding campaign and has involved extensive research, comprehensive mapping via sea and air expeditions, rigorous testing and refinement to reach this point, where it is finally ready to launch its first clean-up system.

According to the The Ocean Cleanup, covering this area using vessels and nets would take thousands of years and cost billions of dollars to complete. But Boyan and his team have created an ingenious system that is estimated to clean up 50% of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in JUST five years.

Learn how it works here or watch this video:

Source: www.theoceancleanup.com

Most of us have heard by now that by 2050 there will be more plastic in the oceans than fish. But what if we could turn this around, and make our oceans plastic-FREE by 2050 instead?

If this system is deployed into every ocean gyre it is projected The Ocean Cleanup could remove 90% of all ocean plastic by 2040, but only if this is accompanied by reduction of plastic waste at the source.

While The Ocean Cleanup plans to recycle the plastic collected, to create a financially sustainable operation, we need to realise this is not just a floating garbage/recycling collection service designed to operate in perpetuity. We need to tackle plastic pollution at its SOURCE. So what does that mean exactly? It doesn’t mean we need more/better plastic recycling. It doesn’t mean we need more street sweepers or litter traps on stormwater drains. It DOES mean we need to DRAMATICALLY reduce our dependence on plastic, particularly the disposable kind.

Here are five ways you can help support The Ocean Cleanup and reduce YOUR contribution to ocean plastic pollution[1]:

1. DITCH single-use plastics — shopping bags & produce bags, bottles, coffee cups, straws, utensils, food containers and food packaging. There are reusable alternatives to all of these (see earlier article here). And be aware that it is not just among take-away items you’ll find single-use plastics — many grocery and other items are too e.g. single-serve yoghurts, snack bars, plastic cling-film, cotton buds, dental flossers, disposable gloves, disposable wipes, balloons.

2. Reduce other disposable plastics you use by shopping in bulk stores, buying fresh produce loose/unpackaged, purchasing larger sizes where possible, avoiding pre-prepared and single-serve meals, making more stuff yourself, simplifying your pantry, bathroom, laundry etc. (do you really need 5 types of sauce/ mustard/ relish/ spread/ cereal/ lotion/ household cleaners)?

3. Replace plastic items with more sustainable alternatives e.g. bamboo toothbrushes, bamboo/stainless steel clothes pegs, metal/wooden coathangers. Choose glass jars/bottles, metal tins or paper/cardboard packaging over plastic. Choose natural fabrics over synthetic ones (this includes clothing, blankets, towels, cleaning cloths, etc.).

4. Pick up plastic litter you see at the beach or even on the street (as this will likely end up in the ocean eventually!). Join fantastic initiatives like Take 3 for the Sea or Litterati, just by snapping and sharing litter you pick up. Don’t underestimate the impact you can have. I’ve picked up around 10,000 pieces of plastic litter in the last 18 months, just on my morning runs three times a week. Imagine if we ALL did that what a difference we could make. No we shouldn’t have to pick up other people’s crap, but when you do, people notice, and that’s how awareness spreads.

5. Watch The Ocean Cleanup launch this weekend. See the countdown here, as well as the livestream, on 8 September at noon local time (PDT), then like and share the video on Facebook @theoceancleanup to spread awareness about this PHENOMENAL mission to save our oceans. I know I’ll be getting up at 5am Sunday to watch it!

Litterati’s global impact (image: www.litterati.org)

Plastic pollution is just one of the many threats facing the world’s oceans, but a very significant one. Our oceans are at a tipping point and our actions within the next 10 years will be CRITICAL for their future, and the future of life on earth. Aside from providing an important food source, oceans absorb carbon dioxide and generate HALF of the oxygen we breathe. So we’d be pretty screwed without them.

“If the oceans die, we die.”

— Captain Paul Watson, Founder, Sea Shepherd

The Ocean Cleanup will be a massive part of the solution to saving our beautiful planet, but it won’t work on its own. We ALL need to take more responsibility for the waste we generate — in particular reducing our plastic consumption.

[1] Mismanagement of waste is responsible for most ocean plastic pollution, including littering, ‘leakage’ from uncovered landfill sites and the export of ‘recyclable’ plastics from Western nations to Asia, where much escapes or is dumped in rivers or the ocean.

Sustainability educator & activist, founder @ Earth Ethic

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