A voyage to humankind’s largest creation – the North Pacific Garbage Patch

Just three weeks before the biggest civic action in human history – World Cleanup Day on September 15th – PhD plastic pollution researcher and World Cleanup Day Knowledge Team member Win Cowger, spent two weeks at sea in the research vessel ‘Alguita’, studying the effects of plastic in the ocean. With Captain Charles Moore at […]

Just three weeks before the biggest civic action in human history – World Cleanup Day on September 15th – PhD plastic pollution researcher and World Cleanup Day Knowledge Team member Win Cowger, spent two weeks at sea in the research vessel ‘Alguita’, studying the effects of plastic in the ocean. With Captain Charles Moore at the helm, the team sailed 2000km off the coast of California into what is known as the North Pacific Gyre, where currents and swells gather together huge swathes of plastic.

The ocean research vessel ‘Alguita’ and her crew set sail for the coastal waters off Mexico to collect data on plastic concentration in the ocean, analyse its effect on fish, and test the predictions of oceanographic models which pinpoint the Gyre’s located at any given time. Besides Captain Moore and Win himself, the crew of the vessel was manned by the first mate Raquelle De Vine; Marty Klein, Port Engineer at Columbia University; Janine Rodriguez, researcher from Pacific Coast Environmental Conservancy, and Lindsey Kruse, an artist.

Despite all having extensive knowledge about the waste situation in the oceans, the team was still shocked by the sight. Cowger points out that plastic and its particles in the ocean are not dense, but small and scattered about like sprinkles on the surface. “Water has a habit of making things like this difficult to collect. It’s an area where plastic has accumulated in great quantities, but it’s not like a land mass or pile. If you drag a net through the water, you’ll find hundreds of tiny fragments. By the time these pieces reach the Gyre, the plastic is chewed up by organisms, corroded by sun, and broken by wave action. Only fragments remain. Lots of them.”

Some of the team’s samples had up to 10% plastic content, the rest was plankton. Cowger draws an imaginary picture: “Imagine a fish or whale filtering plankton – 10% of what they consume could be plastic. Sea birds are eating it too. And this reality exists back on land. Awareness of the issue started in the oceans, but now we’re realizing that the huge problem in the ocean needs to be tackled at its source – which is on land.”

“The most commonly-found product on beaches is food packaging”, Cowger points out, and calls on us all to think about it. “Candy wrappers, potato chip packets, we make tons of it – everything seems to have its own wrapper. Let’s start to focus there – we do not need every piece of fruit wrapped in plastic. We even have plastic wrapped in plastic.”

According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation report, 2016, the amount of trash dumped in the ocean every minute equates to the contents of one garbage truck. If no action is taken, this is expected to increase to two per minute by 2030, and four per minute by 2050.

“It’s clear now that animals on land are also suffering. We need to do something about it – right now, and every one of us!”, said Cowger. “First, we can start with cleanups which help raise awareness, while also addressing the symptoms of the problem. That’s why I’m part of World Cleanup Day and I hope millions of people all over the world will join me on September 15th.”

World Cleanup Day will gather millions of volunteers in 150 countries to unite with their energy, good will and concern for the environment, to clean their countries of waste pollution in a single day. World Cleanup Day is being propelled by the civic movement ‘Let’s do it! World’, which has been initiating cleanup actions across 113 countries throughout the last decade, with over 20 million volunteers taking part in total. The movement began in the small Northern European country of Estonia in 2008, when 50,000 people came together to clean up their entire country in just five hours.

Cowger does admit, however, that cleanups are not a long-term solution, but more of a band-aid on the symptoms. “We clean, we remove the current residual effects, but that’s not really the root of the problem. Successfully creating a world without waste will happen only when we teach people around the world how to live a sustainable and zero waste lifestyle, and build innovative new zero waste systems. This is critical right now. Most of us were born into a world full of plastic – it has its uses, but it also can harm what we care about if it isn’t managed properly, and now we need to work together to save ourselves from the damage it is causing us.”

On 30th of August at 6 PM (Timezone UTC +3) @letsdoitworld holds a Twitter Chat to open the topic of the waste situation in the oceans, discuss the current situation, and brainstorm about the future. Please join, together we can make it better!

The  year  2018  marks 100 years since the founding of the Republic of Estonia. World Cleanup  Day  2018  is  Estonia’s  biggest  gift  to  the  world on  its  100th anniversary. More  information  about  the  centenary  events  can  be  found at www.EV100.ee