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.