Oceans and the plastic problem

The garbage is not just an eyesore. Scientists worry it may harm marine life and humans. Not only do animals get tangled in fishing lines and other big debris, but they ingest smaller bits of plastic also, which then release toxic chemicals, like mercury. Predators take in the chemicals consumed by their prey, allowing those chemicals to move up the food chain till they reach you and me. Garbage in the oceans could really wreak havoc on your health.

But there is a ray of hope. One ambitious foundation, which raised $31.5 million in donations in a matter of years, will try to clean up plastic trash in the North Pacific as early as 2018. Hundreds of other projects are attacking the problem across the world. Experts agree that it’ll take an army to clean up the plastic junk, but they’re hopeful it’ll be done.

We now live in what some scientists call the era of Plastic. Long clear sheets of plastic are wrapped around food in your fridge. We drink out of plastic and carry our groceries in plastic. It is most likely covering the screen you are reading this story on. It blanketed the Earth so much so that scientists think there will be observable layers of plastic in Earth’s sediment millions of years from now. But the problem is not as evident as you think. Thanks to the ocean’s currents, a important part of trash ends up in big systems of rotating currents called gyres, or simply garbage patches. There are five major garbage patches one each in the Indian Ocean, the North Atlantic, the North Pacific, the South Atlantic, and the South Pacific. The essential idea behind Ocean Cleanup is to use the same currents that produced the garbage patch and let them push plastic into a curved network of big floating barriers. The trash could the finally be funneled toward a central tank where it can get collected once a month. Slat plans to deploy the project next year and thinks that the North Pacific will be garbage free by the 2040s.

Change has already begun. A law enacted in 2015 banned those tiny plastic beads found in facial scrubs and body washes. Intended to exfoliate your skin, the beads easily slip through sewage treatment plants and are carried into rivers, lakes, and oceans. The law came shortly after a study estimated that trillion beads were washed down the drains daily. It’s a great starts, imagine if we dealt with all the pollutants like this?