Big Problems Require Big Solutions: How to Tackle Ocean Plastic Pollution

Rachel Richardson, Communications Strategy Officer / The Ocean Cleanup


It is estimated that 5 trillion pieces of plastic are floating in the ocean. A number that is increasing exponentially by the day. Even if you aren’t a sailor, vessel captain, surfer, or other seafaring person, you have probably encountered ocean plastic pollution in some capacity. Perhaps you’ve watched a video online that talks of the massive plastic garbage patches circulating in far out ocean currents; or you’ve simply observed the plastic on holiday as you stroll once-pristine beaches, now littered with plastic.

The problem is big - and action is necessary in order to prevent irreparable damage.

The five subtropical ocean gyres, also known as the ‘ocean garbage patches,’ hold the most persistent and, ultimately, dangerous of all the plastic that makes its way into the oceans. The reasons are manifold. First of all: it accumulates. The amount of plastic reaching these remote areas of the high seas continues to increase. And, if left alone, under the influence of UV light and wave impact this plastic will break down into smaller, consumable plastics and microplastics, that may be ingested by marine life - eventually ending up in the food chain. Which may include our (human) food chain as well. A study by The Ocean Cleanup, a non-profit organization developing advanced technologies to rid the world’s oceans of plastic, shows that there is 180 times more plastic than biomass on the surface of the Great Pacific Garbage patch (the largest of the five patches). This means that some animals feeding in this region are more likely to consume plastic than actual food.

The ocean plastic damage also extends beyond the ocean - affecting more than just marine life. The economic impact is substantial and concerning, as well. The UN has conservatively estimated plastic pollution to cost up to 13 billion USD a year. Ultimately taking more money out of your wallet.

There isn’t just one source to which we can point the finger, though. Some plastic does end up in the oceans from lack of waste management infrastructures, usually by means of rivers and estuaries. In other cases, plastic is making its way into the ocean from ships and vessels losing equipment, or dumping their waste directly into the sea. Either way, the expected number of plastics that are appropriately disposed of is at about 9% of all plastic worldwide. This means that millions of metric tons of plastic are making its way into the ocean each year.

It might seem too big a problem to handle, but there is a lot that we can do - and a lot that is already being done. Local beach cleanups are organized worldwide, collecting thousands of tons of plastic from beaches and shores each year. Legislation has been passed in Canada, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, US and UK to ban microbeads (miniscule plastics used for exfoliation) from cosmetics and toiletries. And single use plastics such as straws, grocery bags or plastic cutlery are being removed more and more from shelves and shops all over the world. The biggest solution (in scale at least) for the ocean plastic problem is presented by The Ocean Cleanup. This non-profit organization has developed a passive technology to remove the accumulated plastic from the garbage patches. It is the belief of founder Boyan Slat that, since technology is what put us in this situation, technology is the best way to get us out of it.

His solution is quite simple: instead of going after the floating plastic with ships and nets, he thought of using the ocean currents to do the hard work and collect the plastic. The Ocean Cleanup’s technology consists of a fleet of drifting cleanup systems (u-shaped floaters with long screens attached) following the same currents as the plastic -but slower- that will then funnel and concentrate the plastic, so it can be extracted and taken back to shore for recycling.

Although the system may seem simple at first glance, it requires a lot of work to design it in such a way that it will work and be able to withstand the elements for many years of operation. The Ocean Cleanup team has iteratively improved its feasibility and design for five years, and in mid-2018 intends to launch the first passive collection and cleanup system in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Once the launch of the first system is proven successful, the operation will continually scale up, placing multiple systems in the patches worldwide. And, calculations show that five years from full-scale deployment of The Ocean Cleanup systems 50% of this gyre can be cleaned, with the projection of cleaning 90% of the world’s ocean plastic by 2040.

Of course, the problem isn’t solved yet. But, there is hope, and there are many ways we can tackle this problem together: try to use less single-use plastic, and recycle regularly. Find out about the local recycling facilities in your area, and, if they’re not available, reach out to your local government to find ways to change this. Perhaps you can contribute financially to operations such as The Ocean Cleanup. Or put some feet on the ground and volunteer with a local cleanup organization. If we collectively work together, then we will clean up the oceans and make them a safe and beautiful place for anyone (or thing) who ventures there.