Sunday, May 3, 2009

Mission to break up Pacific island of rubbish twice the size of Texas

The London Times

Frank Pope, Ocean Correspondent

A high-seas mission departs from San Francisco next month to map and explore a sinister and shifting 21st-century continent: one twice the size of Texas and created from six million tonnes of discarded plastic.

Scientists and conservationists on the expedition will begin attempts to retrieve and recycle a monument to throwaway living in the middle of the North Pacific.

The toxic soup of refuse was discovered in 1997 when Charles Moore, an oceanographer, decided to travel through the centre of the North Pacific gyre (a vortex or circular ocean current). Navigators usually avoid oceanic gyres because persistent high-pressure systems — also known as the doldrums — lack the winds and currents to benefit sailors.

Mr Moore found bottle caps, plastic bags and polystyrene floating with tiny plastic chips. Worn down by sunlight and waves, discarded plastic disintegrates into smaller pieces. Suspended under the surface, these tiny fragments are invisible to ships and satellites trying to map the plastic continent, but in subsequent trawls Mr Moore discovered that the chips outnumbered plankton by six to one.

The damage caused by these tiny fragments is more insidious than strangulation, entrapment and choking by larger plastic refuse. The fragments act as sponges for heavy metals and pollutants until mistaken for food by small fish. The toxins then become more concentrated as they move up the food chain through larger fish, birds and marine mammals.

“You can buy certified organic farm produce, but no fishmonger on earth can sell you a certified organic wild-caught fish. This is our legacy,” said Mr Moore.

Because of their tiny size and the scale of the problem, he believes that nothing can be solved at sea. “Trying to clean up the Pacific gyre would bankrupt any country and kill wildlife in the nets as it went.”

In June the 151ft brigantine Kaisei (Japanese for Planet Ocean) will unfurl its sails in San Francisco to try to prove Mr Moore wrong. Project Kaisei’s flagship will be joined by a decommissioned fishing trawler armed with specialised nets.

“The trick is collecting the plastic while minimising the catch of sea life. We can’t catch the tiny pieces. But the net benefit of getting the rest out is very likely to be better than leaving it in,” says Doug Woodring, the leader of the project.

With a crew of 30, the expedition, supported by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and Brita, the water company, will use unmanned aircraft and robotic surface explorers to map the extent and depth of the plastic continent while collecting 40 tonnes of the refuse for trial recycling.

“We have a few technologies that can turn thin plastics into diesel fuel. Other technologies are much more hardcore, to deal with the hard plastics,” says Mr Woodring, who hopes to run his vessels on the recycled fuel.

Plastics bags, food wrappers and containers are the second and third most common items in marine debris around the world, according to the Ocean Conservancy, which is based in Washington. The proportion of tiny fragments, known as mermaid’s tears, are less easily quantified.

The UN’s environmental programme estimates that 18,000 pieces of plastic have ended up in every square kilometre of the sea, totalling more than 100 million tonnes. The North Pacific gyre — officially called the northern subtropical convergence zone — is thought to contain the biggest concentration. Ideal conditions for shifting slicks of plastic also exist in the South Pacific, the Indian Ocean and the North and South Atlantic, but no research vessel has investigated those areas. If this exploratory mission is successful, a bigger fleet will depart in 2010.

Mr Woodring admits that Project Kaisei has limitations. “We won’t be able to clean up the entire ocean. The solution really lies on land. We have to treat plastics in a totally different way, and stop them ever reaching the ocean.”

Pacific Bin

London Times

May 2, 2009 Frank Pope

The giant, spiralling rubbish dump between Hawaii and Alaska is an indictment of human wastefulness but also a challenge to human ingenuity

Mr McGuire: I want to say one word to you.

Just one word.

Benjamin: Yes, sir.

Mr McGuire: Are you listening?

Benjamin: Yes, I am.

Mr McGuire: Plastics.

In the 42 years since Dustin Hoffman, as Benjamin, received this careers advice in The Graduate, the plastics industry has expanded as only Mr McGuire can have imagined. It now produces the raw material for billions of tonnes of toys, bags, bottles, packaging, furniture and other consumer ephemera each year. But in those four decades none of this plastic has fully biodegraded, and at least six million tonnes of it now spins slowly on its own axis in a patch of the northeastern Pacific whose size is conservatively put at twice the size of Texas.

Next month a flotilla of research vessels, Project Kaisei, will set out from San Francisco to investigate potential ways of cleaning up this plastic and even converting it to fuel. Insofar as consumers are also responsible citizens, they are to blame for the oceanic blot through which these ships will sail. This expedition deserves their attention and support.

When the so-called plastic vortex was discovered in 1997 by Charles Moore, an oceanographer and yachtsman, a sense of unreality clung to reports of the huge expanse of man-made debris that he described. It took him a week to sail through. “As I gazed from the deck over the surface of what should have been pristine ocean I was confronted, as far as the eye could see, by the sight of plastic,” he wrote.

Like the Atlantis of legend, much of the plastic was semi-submerged and hard to photograph from satellites. Unlike Atlantis, it was unquestionably there. Though bypassed until then by most of the world's shipping because it lay in the Pacific's windless “horse latitudes”, it has since been extensively photographed by surface vessels, and its existence has been explained by a system of currents known as the North Pacific Gyre. The UN now estimates that the gyre's waters contain more than 20 times as much plastic as the global average. Rubbish-strewn high-water marks on the North Pacific's remotest islands are the supporting evidence. Marcus Eriksen, a Californian environmentalist who last year floated through the vortex on a raft made from plastic bottles, has said that he does not believe it can be cleaned up. He may be right. It is hard to envisage the international community mustering the necessary co-operation, in which case the best that can be hoped for is to stop the vortex growing.

This would require a complete ban on the dumping of plastic waste at sea, especially by the cities of the Pacific rim. It would take the near-universal adoption of laws such as the Plastic Bag Reduction Act proposed last week in the US House of Representatives. And it would require a step change in the scale of plastics recycling. Humans use an estimated 85 million plastic bottles every three minutes. All of them could be recycled. Most end up in landfill or the oceans.

If national jurisdictions could prevent more plastic being added to the vortex, it would still fall to the ocean to pummel what is already there into submission. That could take centuries. Waves and currents can pull the plastic into pieces small enough for lantern fish to ingest and pass up the oceanic food chain, but they cannot break it down completely.

It is this bleak outlook that has galvanised Project Kaisei to aim higher. It hopes to collect 40 tonnes of plastic rubbish with special nets designed not to catch fish, and convert most of it to diesel fuel. On an industrial scale, that might even appeal to Mr McGuire.