The largest landfill in the world can’t be found on land at all — but in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The so-called “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” consists of millions of pounds of trash, mostly plastic, which have created an oceanic desert where only tiny phytoplankton can survive.
The body of waste is massive enough to have different regions — the Western and Eastern Pacific Garbage Patch. The Eastern Garbage Patch floats between Hawaii and California and is estimated to be twice as large as Texas. The Western Garbage Patch is east of Japan and west of Hawaii. It’s tough to know the true size of these patches because the borders and content constantly change with ocean currents and winds, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
But all of this only counts for about a third of the more than 5 trillion pieces of plastic floating in the ocean, which has horrendous environmental, economic and public health impacts. At least one million seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals die each year due to plastic pollution, scientists say. The global economic impacts of this waste are estimated at roughly $13 trillion, adversely affecting industries such as fishing, shipping, tourism and cleaning of coastlines. The public health impacts are equally egregious — plastic waste releases toxic chemicals that enter the human food chain, which can increase cancer risks, along with malformation and impaired reproductive ability.
To date, efforts to clean up ocean waste have been stymied by the sheer size of the areas in which plastic is concentrated. Traditional cleanup methods using vessels and nets to collect plastic are too expensive and time-consuming to be effective at scale.
Such an arduous task calls for some disruptive innovation, and 20-year-old Dutch entrepreneur Boyan Slat claims he has created just that. Beginning in 2016, Slat's program, The Ocean Cleanup (TOC), will passively collect plastic debris in the waters between Japan and South Korea, near the island group of Tsushima. The system will act as a barrier, trapping floating debris and allowing ships to pick it up using a conveyor belt 7,900 times faster than current methods, and at just 3 percent of the current cost.
At over 6,560 feet long, the device will be the longest floating structure in history. The simple barrier will spend two years in the water, catching debris before it can reach the island where it will be deployed.
If deployed in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch for 10 years, the program could remove 42 percent of the trash, at a cost of around $5 a kilo, TOC says.
To help determine just how much garbage is out there, TOC is organizing what it claims to be the largest ocean plastic expedition in history. This August, it will be crossing the Garbage Patch from Hawaii to California, with up to 50 boats in parallel. The organization is calling for volunteers to join the expedition — TOC will cover a significant part of the costs ($10,000 for boat owners) and will take care of all of the equipment and logistics, and can even arrange for a volunteer to do the measurements.
Cleaning up what’s already in the ocean is critical, but so is reducing the amount of waste that gets there in the first place. Plastic pollution as a whole has risen to the surface of issues that big business must do its part to mitigate. Last year, the Plastic Disclosure Project (PDP), the UN Environment Programme and natural capital analysts Trucost released research that illustrated the irrefutable need for companies to improve the way they measure, manage and report the amount of plastic they use in their business operations and supply chains. And while more and more companies are harvesting ocean plastic and upcycling it into products — everything from packaging and denim to scuba gear, carpet and skateboards — and companies such as Johnson & Johnson and Unilever have committed to eliminating plastic microbeads from their beauty products, a complete course shift is needed to ensure the future health of the world’s oceans.