It is becoming crystal-clear that our oceans are choking with plastic. An estimated 100 million tons of plastic debris currently swirls around in gigantic plastic gyres or 'garbage patches' in the world's oceans, according to research from the Algalita Marine Research Foundation. This is one of the most urgent threats to the survival of our oceans, themselves completely vital to our own survival on earth, yet it remains difficult to know how to clean up and stop the damage. Given the vastness and importance of the oceans to our lives it is remarkable that we have managed to wreak so much damage. But unfortunately we have, and we need to stop further pollution.
It is particularly important to raise the profile of this issue because many consider the health of marine life distant from their concerns and unconnected with wider issues of our impact on the planet. This is close to being the inverse of the truth; we are hugely dependent on the oceans. As the source of over half of the world's oxygen, our lives will become impossible if we continue choking the oceans with plastic. Fortunately, we can all take steps to reduce the flow of plastic into the oceans by changing our plastic buying and usage habits. This is the most useful contribution we can make to solve this problem, particularly as plastic lasts almost indefinitely and cleaning it out of the ocean is very difficult.
Boyan Slat, a young Dutch student revealed a plan at a Delft TEDx Conference in 2012 to capture and filter the surface plastic out of the world's oceans. The idea is to use the currents of the oceans to drive the plastic into huge booms extending out from a fleet of manta-ray shaped collection ships. The plastic would then be filtered out of the water and stored for transport to land and eventual sale to recycling companies. The ambition of the project is inspiring, particularly by virtue of being conceived by a 19-year old student. We should applaud the idea of a young man turning his attention to such a serious problem and trying to devise an innovative solution.
Unfortunately, Slat's plan is unworkable in practice, according to Stiv Wilson of 5 Gyres, a leading ocean conservation organisation. For one thing, much of the plastic is microscopic and can never be effectively netted or filtered. Also, ocean currents would quickly wreck floating arrays attached to the seabed. There are also difficulties in recycling plastic recovered from the ocean and stopping damage to marine wildlife from filtration.
Whilst there are some innovative methods to clean the oceans, these are unproven for large-scale operations. They will be long-term projects, requiring large amounts of public funding in addition to private capital and needing cooperation amongst governments and businesses across the world. In addition, a properly enforced treaty on the dumping of plastics and other pollutants into the sea is needed. However at the moment, as with most environmental issues, the best solution is in changing our behaviour and slowing the flow of plastic into the oceans.
Here are some good ways to stop the pollution of our waterways and oceans:
1. Devise a grocery list with 100% recyclable or compostable products to minimise what you throw away.
2. Stop using beauty products with microbeads or plastic exfoliants in, as these are washed straight into the water supply and cause immediate problems.
3. Use bio-plastic, glass or paper whenever possible.
4. Sign up for a beach cleanup scheme through an ocean conservation group.
5. Don't dump plastic in canals, rivers or the sea itself after use.
6. Recycle, reuse and upcycle!
Algalita Marine Research Foundation: a great resource for information on protecting the oceans.