There are currently five offshore plastic accumulation zones spread across Earth’s oceans, the largest of which is known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP). The accumulation of these areas compounds over time due to natural oceanic forces. The GPGP is located between Hawaii and California and is actually two distinct garbage patches (cool, humans). To put the size of the GPGP in perspective it is estimated to be twice the size of Texas or three times the size of France. Based on extensive research, the mass is estimated to be equivalent to that of 500 Jumbo Jets or 80,000 tonnes. And that’s just one of five patches. Holy trash, Batman.
Most of the debris in these garbage patches is plastic, which is not biodegradable. Plastic breaks down over time into smaller and smaller pieces, known as micro-plastics which can make water look more like cloudy soup. The refuse which makes up the GPGP is mostly from North America and Asia. Worldwide, it is estimated that somewhere between 1.15 and 2.41 million tonnes of plastic is entering oceans through rivers each year.
So it's not great that there are five of these patches scattered around the world’s oceans but what does this really mean? The effects are cumulative and compound over time. Marine debris can prevent plankton and algae (the basis of the marine food chain) from receiving enough sunlight to produce much needed nutrients, which keep marine ecosystems stabilized. As a result, the entire marine food web is at risk, and not only in these areas because the effects can be felt ocean-wide. What's more, the impact isn't limited to marine life. Due to bioaccumulation (the gradual accumulation of substances in an organism) humans too are being affected. To break it down in its simplest form: a fish consumes micro-plastics or other chemicals found in plastic debris, a human eats said fish - human consumes plastic.
Luckily, organizations like The Ocean Cleanup Project are already attacking the problem, while we work on strategies to mitigate the source of the issue - our plastic usage and waste. The Ocean Cleanup Project utilizes passive technology to remove plastic waste and trash from water using the natural force of the ocean. They currently have a fleet of systems working on the GPGP exclusively. Their systems create a coastline using a large floating tube which sits on the surface of the water and a skirt which hangs underneath to contain the debris in one area. Taking advantage of natural forces like wind, ocean currents and waves, these systems corral the debris and collect it. When it's full, a ship acting as a sort of sea garbage truck comes to remove the trash and the cycle repeats itself.
And other sustainable innovations are on the horizon. The Jacques Rougerie Foundation holds an annual competition inviting participants to submit their ideas for creative solutions to environmental challenges. This year’s winner of the 2020 Grand Prize for Architecture and Innovation of the Sea was awarded to Slovak designer, Lenka Petráková for her visionary design dubbed The 8th Continent. The model features five complementary elements designed to be sustainable, self-sufficient, and have as little impact on the environment as possible. The Barrier collects marine debris and waste by harnessing the tidal energy and forces (similar to The Ocean Cleanup Project), the waste then moves to the Collector where it is sorted, biodegraded and stored. There is a Research & Education Center, greenhouses using hydroponic cultivation and living quarters with support facilities. The model is designed in a petal shape with tentacle-like platforms interconnecting the facilities. Although it is just a prototype - as Petráková stated in her acceptance speech, “...anything one man can imagine, another man can make real. And I believe today is the time to imagine a cleaner, environmentally more sustainable future and ways to achieve it with technical, architectural and artistic creations, to allow us to build them for ours, and the world’s better tomorrows.”
Image by NOAA