Plastic: a remarkable, cheap, and light-weight material, both durable and long lasting. This space-age polymer was once viewed as the path to a better and brighter future, and in many ways it has been. Without the invention and application of plastic, the advances our species has made over the past century in science, medicine, and technology would have been unattainable. We would not be living in the advanced world we are now, if it wasn’t for the development of plastics. That’s not even taking into account the affect plastic has on the luxuries of our daily lives, things like transportation, communication, food preservation, and the like. Plastic has not only helped to rocket humanity into an age of advanced science and technology, but has also helped to shape our day-to-day lives into ones of convenience.
Make no mistake though, there is a dark side to this seemingly miraculous material, one that could very well outweigh all the benefits provided by this resilient polymer—the same property that makes it such a popular substance: it’s longevity. Plastic was designed to last forever, and that’s exactly what it does.
Of the estimated 200 million tons of plastic littering our oceans, the majority can be found floating in one of the six major oceanic gyres around the world. These massive, slowly rotating gyres are the result of ocean currents converging in such ways that they create these colossal oceanic vortices. Now, imagine over 200 million tons of plastic debris thrown in the mix. The results are disastrous. The largest of these, the North Pacific Gyre, actually consists of two somewhat smaller gyres, creating a singular enormous whirling vortex of trash that spans an area larger than the United States. This is commonly referred to as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
One of the problematic properties of plastic is that it’s not biodegradable; it literally lasts forever. While plastic does not biodegrade, it does photodegrade: UV light from the sun breaks the plastic down into ever-smaller pieces of plastic known as microplastics. Do not mistake this process with biodegradation though. These microplastics break down into smaller and smaller pieces, but they always remain what they are: plastic—just smaller pieces that are increasingly harder to clean up. Over 90% of the plastic polluting our oceans is made up of microplastics smaller than your fingernail. This photodegradation continues right down to the microscopic level, where we can’t even see the individual pieces of plastic with the naked eye. Instead, we see this viscous toxic sludge where water should be. We are not only polluting our oceans, we are actually changing the chemical composition of them as a whole. That is a big deal.
These microplastics act like sponges. They soak up and retain all kinds of toxic chemicals, such as DDT and PCBs. Unable to distinguish their food from these microplastics littering our ocean, many marine animals end up dying with bellies so full of plastic that no food can pass through them. They literally starve to death with full stomachs. Imagine this—it’s a horrifying reality.
While many animals perish from the ingestion of virulent plastic, many others survive long enough to enter our food chain, permeating it with toxins from the bottom up. In the picture to the left is a rainbow runner, a popular game fish, that was caught off the coast of California, belly chock-full of toxic microplastic. Here’s the thing, all this plastic is going nowhere, except in the bodies of the fish we consume—unless we contain it. Here at Oceanus, that is what we plan to do.
This environmental crisis is exactly that, an environmental crisis—one of the largest to date. If our oceans go, we go. Experts predict that over the course of the next two generations, if nothing is done to stem this, and we continue in this disposable plastic throw-a-way culture we are so used to living in, with no oceanic cleanup, all of our oceans will be in the same conditions as the gyres are now, if not worse. It’s already starting to happen.
The irony of it all, is we cannot just cut plastic out of our lives. We live in a plastic world. We rely on plastic too much to just delete it from our culture. If we as a species were to just exsect plastic from our lives altogether, we would not only halt any and all medical, technological, and scientific progression, we would be retrogressing back to a tribal-like society.
Plastic is used in just about everything we interact with: communication, transportation, consumption, medicine, technology, modern luxuries, down to the device you are using to read this. We can’t just stop using plastic on a macro level like that. It’s not feasible, logical, or possible—something more must be done. While plastic restraint is quite important, as is the development of biodegradable plastics, it’s just not enough. We must focus on cleanup.
Hindered by a stale and banal way of thinking, oceanic cleanup has been virtually nonexistent. We need a fresh, new perspective. Something innovative and bold. The outdated, conventional ways of the past, in regards to dealing with this just aren’t cutting it (as is proven by the lack of notable action that has been taken thus far). Outside of the box thinking is what’s needed if we are going to tackle one of the largest environmental crises of our time. The traditional approach to gyre cleanup usually revolves around scores of ships trawling the ocean with huge nets,miles long, to collect plastic debris. Researchers and government agencies alike have faced a multitude of obstacles with that traditional approach—things like: the mass amount of manpower that would be needed to operate the scores of ships necessary for a project of this scale; the astronomical price it would cost to fund a project of that magnitude, most of which would be the tremendous amount that would be spent on the fueling of all those ships; also the environmental damage that would be wrought by the burning of all that fossil fuel, which could very well be even more harmful to our environment than if we had done nothing; and most importantly, the fact that the majority of what would be caught in those nets would be marine life, since all the microplastic (which is the real problem) would just slip right through any traditional net, and any net fine enough to collect microplastic would also collect plankton, a disastrous culling, as phytoplankton is the source of over 50% of the world’s oxygen. These are some of the reasons why many researchers and government agencies have all but given up on this daunting task, giving in to defeatism. Yes, when viewed in that light, under those guidelines, it does seem impossible… But there is still hope.
Plastic may have once been the path to a better and brighter future for all humanity, but our negligence as a species has come full circle. Plastic has now become our calamity. As when dealing with many things from 100 years ago, we must change our mindsets. We must change the way we think not only about plastic, about pollution, and about cleanup, but our conceptualization and approach as well. The time for stale thinking and timidity is over. It’s time we step up and handle this calamity we have beset ourselves with, not just for the survival and betterment of our species, but for the world as a whole.
We as a people created this disaster. We cannot sit idly anymore, letting this plastic refuse poison our oceans. If we do, we are not only poisoning our oceans, we are not only poisoning the marine life, we are not only poisoning ourselves, but we are poisoning generations to come. Is that the legacy we really want to leave?