Plastic Watch: Great Pacific Garbage Patch Grows

By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She now spends much of her time in Asia and is currently working on a book about textile artisans.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP)– “a major ocean plastic accumulation zone formed in subtropical waters between California and Hawaii”– is growing at a greater rate than previously predicted, according to  a scientific a paper published last week by Scientific Reports. The study estimates the size of the GPGP at 79,000 tonnes, a figure that is four to sixteen times higher than previous estimates.

First discovered in 1997, this floating collection of plastic and other debris is more than three times the size of France and covers 617,800 square miles (1.6 million square kilometers). Before the three-year mapping operation discussed in this report was conducted, little detail was known about the size and contents of the GPGP.

According to :

The study also found that fishing nets account for 46 percent of the trash, with the majority of the rest composed of other fishing industry gear, including ropes, oyster spacers, eel traps, crates, and baskets. Scientists estimate that 20 percent of the debris is from the .

By contrast, microplastics accounted for 8% of the total mass of the GPGP, but 94% of the estimated 1.8 (1.1–3.6) trillion pieces floating in the area, according to the report:

Global annual plastic consumption has now reached over 320 million tonnes with more plastic produced in the last decade than ever before. A significant amount of the produced material serves an ephemeral purpose and is rapidly converted into waste. A small portion may be recycled or incinerated while the majority will either be discarded into landfill or littered into natural environments, including the world’s oceans. While the introduction of synthetic fibres in fishing and aquaculture gear represented an important technological advance specifically for its persistence in the marine environment, accidental and deliberate gear losses became a major source of ocean plastic pollution. Lost or discarded fishing nets known as ghostnets are of particular concern as they yield direct negative impacts on the economyand marine habitats worldwide (citations omitted).

The report also emphasizes that the amount of plastic  waste in the GPGP is growing, rather than diminishing:

Historical data from surface net tows (1970–2015) indicate that plastic pollution levels are increasing exponentially inside the GPGP, and at a faster rate than in surrounding waters. While this does not necessarily mean that the GPGP is the final resting place for ocean plastic reaching this region, it provides evidence that the plastic mass inflow is greater than the outflow. The degradation rate of synthetic polymers in the marine environment is poorly understood, but it is known to depend on local environmental conditions, polymer types, shape and coating of objects. The relatively high occurrence of macroplastics with production dates from the 70 s, 80 s, and 90 s compared to more recent debris suggest that specific types of plastic (i.e. with high volume-to-surface ratios and low windage) persist and accumulate in the GPGP region The mass of plastics floating in the GPGP was mostly distributed in macro- and megaplastics. It is difficult to estimate how long it will take for all the material currently present in the area to degrade in smaller pieces and eventually escape sea surface waters. Based on our modelling results, it seems the bulk mass of material currently present in the GPGP is very unlikely to leave the area and may slowly degrade into increasingly smaller pieces that can eventually either sink to the seafloor, or behave as water tracer due to its microscopic size and low Reynolds number (citations omitted).

Too Little, Too Late?

The sheer size of the GPGP is depressing, especially as world plastics production continues to increase. Indeed, as I wrote in a post at the start of the year, in Fracking Boom Further Spurs Plastics Crisis,fossil fuel companies are making major investments to increase, rather than reduce, the rate of plastic production. This is insane and is a situation that screams for some form of regulatory intervention– because market forces are clearly leading companies to make decisions that while seemingly good for the bottom line, look dire for the planet.

The European Union has taken on somewhat of a leadership role on waste management issues– especially when compared to the pathetic performance of the United States (and I don’t just mean the Trump administration here). Yet as I wrote in January in EU Makes Limited Move on Plastics: Too Little, Too Late? when the EU adopted its long-awaited, much ballyhooed on January 16, “Unfortunately, the plastics strategy is a disappointment, relying too much on recycling rather than waste elimination and even within this narrow framework, endorsing all too feeble goals.”

Two initiatives announced this month to reduce plastic pollution have caught my eye. First, the state of Maharashtra– where Mumbai has located– earlier this month banned all single use plastics. More than 30% of India’s total plastic waste is generated by this state, which has now become the 18th Indian state to institute such a ban. This is supposed to include strict penalties, according to an account in Business Standard, . The most immediate effect of the ban has been on the use of plastic bags, with many retailers ceasing to use them and asking their customers to do the same.

But beyond plastic bags, for which alternatives are widely and easily available, more comprehensive plans to reduce or recycle plastic waste in Maharashtra are still being developed. And, while as is the case with any other plan of this sort– and particularly in India, where indifferent or inadequate enforcement often stymies what appear to be sensible initiatives– the devil is in the details.

Business Standard reports:

The dairy and beverage companies have been given around three months to come up with an alternative packaging plan or set up recycling plants to reduce plastic waste, the state government had indicated last week.

Much milk in India is sold in plastic bags– which I believe are typically not recycled:

Amul is ranked among the top pouch milk brands in the city. Some other pouch milk suppliers in Mumbai include Mother Dairy, Warana, Mahananda and Gokul. These companies were not immediately available for any comment.

India has already achieved 90% recycling rate for plastic water bottles and food containers made from polyethylene terephthalate (PET), according to a February 2017 article in Hindustan Times,

Of the 900 kilo tonnes of PET made in India annually, 65% is recycled at registered facilities, 15% in the unorganised sector and 10% is reused at homes, states a yearlong study by scientists from Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) – National Chemical Laboratory (NCL). The rest ends up at landfills. The recycling rate for PET in Japan is 72.1%, 48.3% in Europe and 31% in the US.

This Hindustan Times article also elaborates on how recycled PET is reused:

“We use a combination of site visits, interviews, literature survey for this study. The team has visited (and continues to visit) PET recycling units across the country. We identified large-scale industries that used discarded PET bottles to produce a variety of products and visited their recycling facilities to incorporate our data,” said Dr Magesh Nandgopal, scientist from NCL’s polymer science and engineering division who carried out the study along with Dr Ashish Lal, head of the division.

He added, “What is striking and not many people are aware that the entire Indian cricket team’s apparel for the 2015 world cup was made from recycled PET bottles. Even the their current jersey is made from this material.”

The scientists observed that PET bottles were collected, sorted, cleaned, shredded, and made into ‘washed flakes’. “These washed flakes are then used to make (predominantly) polyester fibre, which is used as filling material for cushions, pillows, and converted to fabrics for use in clothing, upholstery, etc.,” said Lal.

The study estimated that while the PET recycling business has a turnover of Rs3,500 crore in a given year in India, the end products sell at anywhere between Rs50-110 per kg. Discarded PET bottles fetch waste collectors Rs14-15 kg. These bottles are bought by kabadiwallahs (scrap dealers) or waste traders, who employ people to segregate, sort and further sell it to large vendors or recyclers.

Firms that sell bottled water and other bottled beverages throughout Maharashtra are now expected to ramp up further recycling initiatives for PET bottles, as the Business Standard reports:

In contrast, beverage firms such as Bisleri International have polyethylene terephthalate (PET) recycling initiatives running in Mumbai. These will be implemented on a wider scale, company officials said.

Coca-Cola India said it was reviewing the matter, while PepsiCo said it was working with the Packaging Association of Clean Environment to promote recycling of PET.

By contrast, the UK currently recycles less than 60% of its plastic bottles– although the recently reported that Environment Secretary Michael Gove expects soon to introduce a deposit scheme to increase recycling, to include reverse vending machines for depositing used bottles. This scheme might be based on a Norwegian program that has led to 97% of bottles being recycled, as reported by the BBC in . So, if India and Norway can recycle at least 90% of their plastic bottles, using very different waste collection and management systems, why not the UK?

Cleaning Up the GPGP– and Other Ocean Waste

Obviously, drastically reducing the use of plastics, and recycling much of all plastics generated, going forward, is desirable. But these measures are no panacea.

Nor will these measures in any way shrink the GDGP. At best, they can slow the rate at which it continues to grow. So, what about cleaning up the mess that already exists?

The study released last week is just one step toward tackling this problem. As reported by

“To solve a problem, we need to understand it first,” said ,. “There’s a good part to it and a bad part to it. The bad part is that there is more [trash and plastic] than what we thought. But the good part is that most of the plastic is still large object. Just 8 percent of the plastic is micropastic. It’s not too late to do something about it.”

reports that the NGO  will launch a program to clean up ocean waste within the next twelve months– two years ahead of schedule– using technologies it has developed. Ocean waste will be encircled by a barrier, which will then be transported back to land to be recycled. The NGO claims that full deployment of its systems would clean up 50% the GPGP in five years (Further discussion of this initiative is beyond the scope of this post.)

Whether this is a feasible strategy or for that matter, whether Ocean Cleanup’s claims are valid, I don’t know. But even if the new system exceeds anyone’s wildest expectations for its success, it’s only one necessary part of cleaning up the oceans, where plastic and other forms of pollution have damaged aquatic life– perhaps irreparably (see, for example, this January piece, where  I discussed another recent study that documented the damage done by plastics to coal reefs, in Plastics Sicken Coral Reefs).

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18 comments

  1. Harold

    Maybe I read this first here, but it it this is true then regulation of fishing industry could go a long way in helping to clean up the Pacific patch. (Provided there were an effective way to do it). Of course the other sources of plastic are still a problem.

    WHAT’S REALLY IN THE PATCH?
    Microplastics make up 94 percent of an estimated 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic in the patch. But that only amounts to eight percent of the total tonnage. As it turns out, of the 79,000 metric tons of plastic in the patch, most of it is abandoned fishing gear—not plastic bottles or packaging drawing headlines today.

    A comprehensive new study by Slat’s team of scientists, published in Scientific Reports Thursday, concluded that the 79,000 tons was four to 16 times larger than has been previously estimated for the patch. The study also found that fishing nets account for 46 percent of the trash, with the majority of the rest composed of other fishing industry gear, including ropes, oyster spacers, eel traps, crates, and baskets. Scientists estimate that 20 percent of the debris is from the 2011 Japanese tsunami.

    1. Jerri-Lynn Scofield Post author

      It’s true that fishing debris is a sizeable part of the GPGP– and in fact in my piece, I quote the last two sentences of the NG quote you’ve included above. But I chose to focus on the plastics issue– which is not only part of the GPGP, but is itself a wider problem (not to mention that some of that fishing debris is also made of plastic).

      1. Harold

        I am sorry I missed that you had referred to the National Geographic article in your piece. I should have been more attentive.

        Of course, I wholeheartedly agree that plastic pollution is a terrible problem, for one thing a lot of it is toxic to human animal life, probably in ways we don’t yet understand. I am trying to cut down on our personal plastic use myself — but I think the real solution has to come from regulation, as do probably most of us here.

        For my part I understood the article to be saying that at least half of the Pacific plastic trash was commercial fishing gear from industrial fishing, deliberately discarded, and that not just some of the industrial fishing gear, but all of it was plastic and that the researchers were astonished that consumer plastics did not make up a bigger component.

  2. David

    Although the presence of vast amounts of plastic in the open ocean has generated great concern due to its potential ecological consequences, recent studies reveal that its measured abundance is much smaller than expected. Regional and global studies indicate that the difference between expected and actual estimates is enormous, suggesting that a large part of the plastic has been degraded by either physical and biotic processes.

    From the conclusion,

    Growing evidence supports the presence of microbial candidates for evolved plastic degradation. Our results suggest that hose (sic) species associated with plastic debris degradation should exhibit a population boom that correlates with the plastic trend. This could, in fact, help identify new candidates for plastic degradation but also can have consequences for the biodiversity of microorganisms surrounding plastic debris.

    The paper has not been peer reviewed.

    1. PlutoniumKun

      Interesting. It does raise the intriguing notion of what happens if newly evolved plastic munching microbes start going to work on things like landfill liners and structural plastic items like water pipes….

      1. Synoia

        You know that’s going to happen. Especially if it is a microbe, which have short generation and can evolve quickly.

        Oh no! My car got eaten last night!

  3. JacobiteInTraining

    Although like many things 3D-printing-related it is currently more in the realm of tinkerers then fully-fleshed out for the masses…there are things such as the ProtoCycler & the (currently still rather expensive) Filabot Industrial Reclaimer that allow users to grind up plastics on their own, and then extrude them into 3D printing filament to then be used in printing.

    It likely wont be long before these devices are commonly and affordably available to the masses and this will likely prove to be a great way to recycle on an individual level, rather then depending on sending everything off to a huge organization to do the deed.

    Maybe a coop can get sailboats/barges together to go out to the ocean garbage patches to ‘mine’ for free plastics resources…

  4. Pespi

    A great symbol of global cooperation between the US, Rus, and China would be funding and jointly operating some kind of ocean garbage skimmer to get rid of this. That would take leadership without war against all humanity mentality, though.

    Or if you want to show the STRENF of the USA, just clean it up and say, hey, look, there’s a problem and we solved it, we care about the planet, etc.

  5. Tooearly

    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.

  6. JEHR

    How fitting that human beings will end their days (and the planets’ viability) by suffocating inside their own garbage!

  7. Sam Adams

    But then you have individual US State legislation prohibiting cities from eliminating plastic single use containers and plastic bags, like that being pushed in South Carolina.

  8. Hana M

    A couple of recent studies indicate that much of the plastic flows into the oceans via river systems in Africa and Asia.

    A report from Ocean Conservancy claims 60% of ocean plastic comes from China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam. Garbage collection in these nations is poorly regulated; impoverished consumers prefer small packages of good like shampoo; scavengers get little reward for collecting plastic compared to, say, aluminum. This is a great summary from PRI–the photos are mind-blowing: Here’s the PDF:

    Studies from a Dutch group, The Ocean Cleanup Foundation, estimated that the top 20 polluting rivers were mostly located in Asia (Table 1) and accounted for more than two thirds (67%) of the global annual input

    Here’s another good summary on Asia’s rivers (and particularly those flowing through Chinese cities) as a source of ocean plastic, mostly based on the Dutch study.

  9. none

    I saw that thing about 46 percent fishing gear and wondered why National Geographic is publishing such bullshit, then remembered that Rupert Murdoch bought National Geographic a few years ago.

    Imagine you run a restaurant and somehow 500 pounds of unwanted concrete gets onto the premises. 50 pounds of it is microscopic dust that gets in all the food. The rest is a single 450 pound block standing in a hallway. It really doesn’t matter whether the 450 pound block comes from fishing nets or whatever else: big pieces like that are easy to get rid of. It’s the microscopic particles that will find its way into every link of the ecosystem. It’s all through the food chain already. I saw the thing about microbes evolving to digest it, but fish, marine mammals, and humans won’t evolve that way anywhere near as fast.

    1. Synoia

      but fish, marine mammals, and humans won’t evolve that way anywhere near as fast

      But their gut microbes might. Interesting research project. Would our beloved leaders volunteer for live trials and eat our …..?

    2. Harold

      I wondered idly about that myself, I mean whether the intent of the article was an attempt to try to minimize the problem. (I didn’t know that NG had been bought by Murdoch). I can believe in the awful carelessness of the fishing industry, however. Not to mention the harmfulness of discarded netting that strangles wildlife.

    3. RenoDino

      CONSUMER ALERT: Sel de Mer and other sea salts are now part Plastic de Mer. Make sure your salt comes from hard rock sources from the continental interior.

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