Sunday 22 Jul 2018 | 09:28 | SYDNEY
Sunday 22 Jul 2018 | 09:28 | SYDNEY

So wasted: The Pacific Garbage Patch

20 July 2010 10:05

Since its discovery in the mid-1990s, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch has attracted attention from scientists, media and activists. More and more evidence is appearing to show that so-called 'ocean gyres' – large rotating ocean currents – essentially function as a marine trash vortex for the plastic waste that ends up in the sea.

The plastic debris in the Pacific Garbage Patch is hardly visible from above, so on the outside it doesn't appear to be a sea-of-rubbish the size of the Northern Territory. Yet, the micro-particles floating around contain all kinds of dangerous toxins, which in some cases might not immediately kill the confused fish feeding on it but will, due to our increasing love and consumption of fish, end up in our own food chain.

Even worse, the Pacific Garbage Patch is not an isolated phenomenon. There are four more ocean gyres also accumulating plastic waste. Only a couple of months ago scientists discovered the North Atlantic Garbage Patch, containing pollution levels similar to the Pacific Patch.

The problem of this non-traditional security threat lies unmistakably in the nature of plastic marine pollution. It is hardly visible, far offshore and barely understood in terms of long-term impact on the environment and food safety.

While the Dutch may have come up with a creative way of dealing with the plastic marine rubbish, a real solution seems to be a long way out. Awareness-raising campaigns are already underway as a much needed first step. Take, for example, the Australian film-maker Richard Pain, who is in training for an attempt to swim through the Pacific Garbage Patch to put this environmental concern higher on the political agenda. 

Still, as climate change has evidenced, awareness of a serious global threat does not automatically translate into sustainable solutions. If we can't even come to an international agreement on fighting climate change, how do we plan to deal with other less well-known matters of pollution?

The critical problem in this case is our perception and use of plastic. We produce plastic to last forever, but design it for a throwaway society. Hence, we fundamentally need to challenge the way we design plastic products. As outlined in the Cradle-to-Cradle philosophy, we may need 'the transformation of human industry through ecologically intelligent design'.

Photo by Flickr user murphyeppoon, used under a Creative Commons license.