Eliminating the Plastic Garbage Threat

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Eliminating the Plastic Garbage Threat

It is estimated that 1.15 to 2.41 million tons of plastic are entering the ocean each year from rivers. More than half of this plastic is less dense than the water, meaning that it will not sink once it encounters the sea.

The stronger, more buoyant plastics show resiliency in the marine environment, allowing them to be transported over extended distances. They persist at the sea surface as they make their way offshore, transported by converging currents and finally accumulating in five concentrations, known as “patches.”

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch (or GPGP) is the largest of the world’s Garbage Patches, covering an estimated surface area of 1.6 million square kilometers; that’s about twice the size of Texas or three times the size of France.  On average the patch orbits around 32°N and 145°W.  At the time of the most recent sampling study, the GPGP contained more than 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic which weighed between 80,000 and 100,000 tons.  That is equivalent to 250 pieces of debris for every human in the world.  And, while 1.8 trillion is a mid-range value for the total count, the calculations estimated that it may range from 1.1-to-3.6 trillion pieces.

The first step in the massive cleanup of plastic in the seas began last fall in the Pacific Ocean.  The initiative, called The Ocean Cleanup, is a not-for-profit backed by Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal and Marc Benioff, the chief executive of Salesforce.com.  Last fall, it launched its first 2,000-foot long cleanup system.  It is designed to collect five tons of ocean plastic per month.  The launch date was September 8, and it targeted a segment of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch more than 1,000 nautical miles from the launch point in Alameda, California. 

Before the system developed technical problems in late December, a lot had been learned.  And, based on this beta test, the Ocean Cleanup organization plans to have an improved fleet of 60 more units skimming the ocean for plastics by 2021. The ultimate goal of the project is to clean up 50% of the 87,000-ton “patch” in five years, with a 90% reduction in its cumulative mass by 2040...

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