Science, Tech & Environment

Giant mass of plastic threatens marine life in Pacific

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The Plastic Vortex is located within the North Pacific Gyre, one of the five major oceanic gyres. (Photo: Fangz)

A pair of scientific ships sets sail this month to explore an new unusual ocean phenomenon: a giant floating patch of plastic. The currents of the swirling Pacific gyre northeast of Hawaii push some four million tons of plastic into a soupy mass nearly twice the size of Texas. It's killing marine life and adding to the ocean's toxic burden.

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Scientists with Project Kaisei want to scoop up the plastic and put it to good use. Mary Crowley and Doug Woodring, who started the project, recently talked to "Living on Earth" about their efforts.

Crowley and Woodring will each be one of the two ships sailing out to the Plastic Vortex. Crowley's ship includes a group of six marine scientists and five participants who will determine how to capture the plastic debris.

Woodring's ship, a research vessel owned by Scripps Institution of Oceanography, will concentrate on collecting data and information that will aid in cleaning up the massive amount of debris.

"I think the main thing is gonna be how to net it or catch it in an efficient way, 'cause new technologies exist that allow us to remediate that plastic and actually turn it into a fuel," said Woodring. "If we're able to do that then there's a value to capturing that product and that can help subsidize a future cleanup effort. So that the trick is really figuring out how much volume we might get and therefore deduct in how much output we could get from a byproduct which is a fuel which could then subsidize our trip."

Not harming marine life is a big factor for the cleanup, said Crowley, "We've really been reaching out to people all around the world about capture techniques and about the idea of doing some passive systems where we would be able to put up netting and use sea anchors going down to a different level. And so we'd be able to use the surface current to bring us the debris. We should be able to fairly easily not involve fish or marine mammals, etc. because the debris doesn't move except for the current. So it's quite easy for use to get the debris and not get the ocean life."

Woodring explained how the plastic can work its way up the food chain to affect human health: "A problem especially with marine life in the gyre and marine debris is that it also is a bonding agent ... for heavy metals, persistent organic particles that are in the ocean bind themselves to this material. So not only do you have a plastic particle, but you have millions of small bits of the POPs which are toxic. And the problem here is when the marine life eats this plastic, it may die of inability to digest the material, but it's also these toxins that are getting into that animal or fish. And when the next animal or fish in the food chain eats that it's going up into the whole ecosystem including into potentially what we're eating."

So efforts to turn the plastic into fuel must include a way to detoxify said Woodring, "So some of the new technologies that can basically liquefy and refine plastic material back into either a diesel or a heavy fuel, they have an ability to detoxify that in the process. In fact, the way that this system works is if you have a kilo roughly or a pound of plastic being put in the machine, you get about eighty percent of that back in liquid fuel form, about twenty percent is gas form. And that gas is actually going to be used to run the plant itself. So it's a very, very good new system and there's a value to the waste wherever it's collected. That gives people incentive to go collect it."

It's imperative that these environmental cleanups happen said Crowley, "It's very disturbing, but that's a great deal of why I have such a passion to accomplish this cleanup. It's sort of like this has happened in my lifetime. And I have a twenty-three-year-old daughter and I have all sorts of young friends and I think their children won't get to experience the same things I have unless we really take action now and create change in people's behavior. And we need to figure out effective ways of cleanup and help the ocean. And we need everyone to help us."

Hosted by Steve Curwood, "Living on Earth" is an award-winning environmental news program that delves into the leading issues affecting the world we inhabit. More "Living on Earth."