The single-use plastic problem was just beginning to enter mainstream consciousness as I prepared for my first Transpacific Yacht Race in 2015. California was working toward a statewide ban on plastic bags while a 21-year-old college dropout had launched a global campaign to clean up the oceans. Three years later, plastic straws are the latest single-use plastic item on the hit list, and The Ocean Cleanup project is counting down the weeks to full deployment.
The Transpac follows a 2,225-nautical mile course from Los Angeles to Honolulu. The bulk of racing occurs in the North Pacific Gyre, the vortex of four prevailing ocean currents and home to the most extensive collection of trash on the planet — the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
The GPGP is not a floating island of garbage as the name suggests. It’s an area of ocean now known to be larger than 1.6 million square kilometers — that’s twice the size of Texas and three times the size of France — containing some 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic.
I was on a 50-foot sailboat known as Adrenalin. Sailing away from California, we marveled at a healthy array of dolphins, seabirds, whales and flying fish. As we entered the GPGP, we were shocked at the amount of debris we saw floating by: plastic drink crates, large rubber and plastic buoys, coils of fishing rope, a bright orange lifesaver.
Even more worrisome was the garbage we couldn’t see, but only heard, in the form of a hard DONG! reverberating through the hull in the middle of the night. When we got to Hawaii, we discovered four significant dents below the waterline. And then there were the times we had to stop racing, drop the sails, turn the boat into the wind and back up to remove large chunks of commercial fishing line off the keel.
"The GPGP is a real and horrible reminder of our impact on nature. The amount of flotsam we saw during daylight hours was astounding, including large items that would have sunk the boat if we had collided: a 20-foot propane tank, a 30-foot piece of broken dock and a 16-foot dinghy covered in barnacles and debris," said Andy Bates, Adrenalin co-owner.
A mission to track pollution
In 2015, the full extent of the GPGP was still unknown — the area, the concentration of microplastics, the spectrum and distribution of larger pieces — which is how The Ocean Cleanup’s founder Boyan Slat ended up at the Transpac award ceremony, where he detailed for the seafaring crowd how Transpac racers would contribute to his Mega Expedition, a large-scale mission to survey pollution in the Pacific. (And if you don't recognize that name, read up on Slat and his not-so-crazy idea of cleaning up the ocean.)
Volunteer crews on 30 sailboats plus the 171-foot Ocean Starr research vessel set out from Hawaii on parallel courses, each outfitted with a compact surface trawl to measure for concentrations of microplastics — pieces of plastic less than five millimeters in diameter — as well as record visual sightings of larger pieces. Microplastics are nearly invisible to the naked eye but pose a huge problem to ocean life.
"We collected six samples a day for three days. On the fourth day we were caught in a tropical storm making sampling impossible, but we continued logging visual observations using The Ocean Cleanup smartphone app. When we arrived in port in San Francisco, we sent our frozen samples to Mega Expedition headquarters for analyzation," explained Bates, who was instrumental in involving Adrenalin in the Mega Expedition on the delivery back to California.
It's fitting that the most significant effort to clean up the Pacific should find its way back to the Transpac. After all, it was a Transpac racer who first brought the existence of the GPGP to the attention of the science and environmental community. After the 1997 edition of the race, sailor and independent researcher Charles Moore reported seeing large amounts of plastic concentrated in the North Pacific Gyre.
"I gazed from the deck at the surface of what ought to have been a pristine ocean, I was confronted, as far as the eye could see, with the sight of plastic... In the week it took to cross the subtropical high, no matter what time of day I looked, plastic debris was floating everywhere: bottles, bottle caps, wrappers, fragments," he recalled in a blog post on Natural History Magazine. In the years since, it’s only gotten worse.
The equivalent of 500 jumbo jets
The results of the Mega Expedition and subsequent Aerial Expedition data analysis published this spring even surprised researchers: 80,000 metric tons of plastic, the equivalent of 500 jumbo jets, and up to 16 times higher than previous estimates. The "good" news is that 92 percent of the mass of plastic is in the form of larger pieces, which are easier to fish out before they break down into microplastics.
"We used to think most of the debris consists of small fragments, but this new analysis shines a new light on the scope of the debris," said Dr. Julia Reisser, the Mega Expedition’s chief scientist.
The whole time they were crunching the numbers on how much plastic was in the Pacific Ocean, the team was also developing a solution: a high-density polyethylene floating boom attached to a nylon screen and held in place under the water by large sea anchors. HDPE is extremely durable and recyclable and designed to survive the extreme conditions in the middle of the ocean.
"Larger pieces of debris will not have enough speed or force to damage the floaters, and retrieving the larger pieces of plastic will be very possible," said Slat.
Shipping routes tend to travel with prevailing ocean currents, which lead traffic north and south around the GPGP, but the booms will still be outfitted with all navigational warnings required by law, as well as a few additional systems that designers believe will increase safety. The system, called System 001, is capable of autonomously traveling around the patch, but will be under constant supervision, and if needed, guided away from oncoming traffic.
Ready for deployment
Just over 30 years since Moore’s initial report, The Ocean Cleanup plans to deploy System 001 to the GPGP sometime in late August, depending on the speed of construction. Working out of an assembly base in the San Francisco Bay Area, the team completed the first tow test of a 400-foot section of boom in May. The next step is the "final rehearsal" with the complete 2,000-foot boom, which they’ll tow 240 nautical miles off the coast of Northern California. They don’t expect to collect much plastic during that final test; it’s more of a proof of concept and an opportunity for fine-tuning the system. Although, Slat noted any plastic gathered would be a nice bonus. Global deployment is slated to begin in 2020.
The Ocean Cleanup continues efforts to generate awareness, supporting recycling initiatives, and sharing knowledge onshore and offshore. The group has partnered with the American Sailing Association and they’re working with sailors from the Volvo Ocean Race to continue research and raise awareness for the plastic problem.
Danish sailor Nicolai Sehested of VOR Team Azkonobel used to spent precious hours of his "off-watch" collecting samples in the Southern Ocean. The results showed a concentration of microplastics at Point Nemo, the furthest point from land on Earth. "Sailors often experience the plastic problem first-hand, and are very important to help make the world more aware," said Slat.
It’s easy to blame natural disasters like hurricanes and tsunamis or careless shipping companies for the large chunks of plastic in the water. But Slat reiterates that onshore plastic use is the reason the oceans are as polluted as they are. "What people who live far away from oceans don't realize is, rivers supply most of the plastic to the oceans and even people miles from a sea contribute to the problem by littering."
But being aware of the problem and then trying to clean it up isn't enough: It's time we make a real effort to curb the problem at its source, each making a conscious choice to significantly reduce the amount of single-use plastic we consume, reusing what we can, and making sure that the rest gets into the appropriate recycling container. For the rest of it, well, let’s hope it makes its way to one of Slat’s booms.
Jenn Virskus is a photographer and sailor who embarked on a sailing adventure aboard the Adrenalin in 2015 and experienced firsthand the impact of the Great Pacific Ocean Patch.