Our oceans are under attack and it’s getting worse. Around 1.15 to 2.41 million tonnes of plastic annually enter the ocean from rivers alone.
As another 10,755kg haul of ocean rubbish hits the ship’s deck, you already begin to see just how much waste is choking our seas.
What a Load of Rubbish - This Is How ‘Jenny’ Is Cleaning up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch One 10,000KG Haul at a Time.
Little by little, a Dutch non-profit called The Ocean Cleanup has been cleaning up the Great Pacific garbage patch. This is an area about halfway between Hawaii and California, where rubbish covers 1.6 million square kilometres.
So how does The Ocean Cleanup work? Meet System 002, or Jenny as it is affectionately named. Jenny uses an ‘artificial coastline’ around 800m long, pulled by two ships which collect and trap any marine debris in its wake, including microplastics as small as 3mm.
So far, The Ocean Cleanup have made over 55 'extractions' with a specially designed net and detecting technology to find and rescue plastic waste that has entered our seas.
The latest estimate is that there is around 80 million kilogrammes of ocean waste in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch alone.
Seven Reasons Why The Great Pacific Garbage Patch Is Bad
- Seaspiracy claimed that as much as 46% of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is actually made up of fishing nets. Wildlife can get stuck and drown in discarded nets.
- Plastics are always breaking down in the water, through a combination of friction with other bits of waste, wave action, and then getting baked in the sun.
- Bigger pieces of plastic break down into microplastics. But for plastic to fully decompose it can take a thousand years.
- Microplastics and other marine debris are a big problem because they can kill plankton and algae. This is because they block sunlight from reaching the deeper ocean. These algae and plankton are on the lowest run of the food chain. So if they suffer, so does the whole ocean. Eventually, that also impacts us as consumers because fish will become scarcer and more expensive.
- Microplastics can also pollute and release harmful chemicals. This can affect fish directly when they eat microplastics. A new study has revealed that microplastics can change the behaviour of fish. They are more likely to take risks, swimming in riskier areas “where they die en masse”.
- Microplastics can also damage the gills of shellfish and block the digestive track of other organisms that end up starving to death.
- If you eat fish, you’re more likely to be consuming harmful microplastics, heavy metals and other pollutants that cause damage to human cells.
Is it Possible to Totally Clean up all Ocean Plastics?
Sometimes you need to go up the river to prevent an issue at its source. In this case, this metaphor is really quite literal. The Ocean Cleanup is developing measures to stop plastics from going out from rivers into the sea.
They have tried stopping these tsunamis of rubbish using an innovative barrier called Trashfence. This was a trial in Rio Motagua, Guatemala.
It all starts at a local landfill site in Guatemala City, which is right next to the Rio Las Vacas.
Heavy rainfall causes this rubbish to be washed into the river, where it then goes downstream. Some of those who live outside the city downstream do not have access to this site and just dump their waste straight into the river illegally. Much of the waste then gets funnelled into a hydropower plant. But the rubbish isn’t contained here.
During flash floods, the water goes over the dam and the buoyant plastic goes with it. The plastic continues downstream to the Rio Motagua which eventually ends up in the Caribbean Ocean.
So The Ocean Cleanup designed a solution, called Trashfence, which initially looked like it was holding up against the swathes of plastic hurtling downriver. But the sheer power of the river undermined the fence and plastic still got through. Nevertheless, with more work, The Ocean Cleanup team say they can stop up to 20 million kilos of plastic entering the Carribean Sea, every year.
Preventing plastics from even going into rivers and oceans in the first place is the cure.
Read More: Washing Your Clothes to Save the Planet
One estimate said it would take a whole year and 67 ships to clean up just 1% of the visible Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
At the moment, System 002 uses two ships. They are working on System 03, which involves more ships and larger nets, with the ability to clean 50% of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch every 5 years.
Either way, the cleanup operation is taking a lot of investment, time, energy and resources. At the same time, we’re still contributing to the swathes of plastics entering our seas. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is just one site where ocean waste gathers because of gyres. These gyres are circular currents which pull all the waste together and can also be found in the Indian Ocean and the Atlantic Ocean. Plastic is not limited to these places but it is where it gathers and makes it easier to target.
The Ocean Cleanup's eventual goal is to develop multiple System 03s in various ocean waste sites across the world, to remove 90% of floating ocean plastic by 2040. Ambitious!
What The Ocean Cleanup Does with Ocean Plastics
So what happens with all the rescued plastics? This is what a number of Instagram users have asked The Ocean Cleanup.
Their response was “Our aim is to give the plastic collected from the ocean a new life. We work with partners to recycle the plastic into durable products, to fund future cleanups.”
Here’s a breakdown of how they work to put the waste plastics to good use.
- An offshore crew sorts each catch into fibrous vs hard plastics
- Plastic is taken to recycling facilities and sorted into more categories
- Plastic is then shredded, washed, dried and made into granulate which are these really small bits of plastic
- Then this raw material can be used to make new recycled products
Where the Blame Lies
You might be thinking, hang on, I carefully recycle or dispose of plastics, so how am I contributing? Sadly, washing plastic-based clothing like polyester fleeces release microplastics with every wash.
While there are lots of consumer-focused products to catch these microplastics, like the GuppyBag, we have a big issue with how sewage is treated in the UK.
In George Monbiot’s recent Guardian column, he pointed out that a modern, well-run sewage works should remove 99% of microplastics from our wastewater.
The first issue here is that our privately owned sewage network has been pumping raw sewage onto our beaches and into our waterways. This is even happening near us with sewage entering the Tyne and in the Wear. Most of these events occur because of storm overflows, where our outdated sewage systems cannot deal with excess rainfall, and use these overflows as an emergency release valve. The purpose is to stop sewage backing up in our homes and businesses but the consequences are that our wastewater goes straight into our waterways.
Okay, let’s say in an ideal world we update our sewage network. But listen to this; 87% of the sewage sludge that is filtered out gets sent to UK farms to be used for fertiliser. See a problem here? The microplastics aren’t being properly disposed of here. They end up washing back into the rivers or accumulating in the soil which is bad news for long-term soil health and for the flora and fauna. Needless to say, this needs to be stopped.
What Role can Fashion Play in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch Cleanup?
Avoid buying new plastic-based materials. We need to reduce the amount of plastic-based products we use because it is energy and carbon-intensive. Also when it comes to disposal, recycling it is also difficult. Materials like cotton, hemp and linen are biodegradable, recyclable and have a lower impact.
If we buy second hand we are ensuring that clothes do not get thrown away in the first place. It also means reducing the demand for virgin materials and for any of the chemicals used in processing or dying clothes. Lots of the clothes that we donate in earnest to charity shops are too poor in quality and get shipped abroad for textile recycling. Some of it will also be sent to overseas markets like Ghana, where they struggle to find a use for our damaged, cheaply made garments. Buying second hand clothes means we keep our clothing in use for longer.
You often see products that are made out of recycled plastic bottles or marine plastics. On the surface, these look great for the environment by taking a waste product and making it into something new.
The issue with creating products out of recycled materials as that it can be seen as downcycling. This is because the resulting product made from recycled materials is actually of poorer quality. Oftentimes recycled products are still made with a blend of materials. For example, recycled polyester fleeces are often a blend of virgin and recycled material. At the present time it is really hard to separate these fibres.
Francois Souchet from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation said: “Today mechanical recycling is mainly used to take plastic bottles and turn them into garments,”
“As it is today, bottles that have been turned into garments are no longer recyclable.”
This is because when you put your plastic bottle into the recycling bin, it enters a closed-loop system where it can essentially keep being recycled with no waste. At the moment, technology isn’t quite good enough to do the same with textile-to-textile recycling.
But we can close that loop ourselves by keeping used clothes in circulation. Whether that’s buying preloved, renting clothing, patching jeans, or sewing on buttons, we need to squeeze the life out of every garment, even the plastic-based ones. When they’re no good to wear outside, wear them in. Then turn them into cleaning cloths.