The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a high concentration of plastic waste, chemical sludge and other dumped debris between Hawaii and California. It was discovered towards the end of 1980s at the convergence of currents known as the North Pacific Gyre.

Humanity’s impact on the planet is becoming ever more apparent. We’re doing long-term damage to delicate ecosystems and wildlife, and reducing the overall stability of our environment.

We’ve had a such a huge impact on the planet that we have entered a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene. It dates from the world’s first nuclear test in 1945, and is characterised by tarmac roads, plastic sedimentation and melting ice caps.

Three times the size of France

Plastic has become increasingly pervasive over the last 70 years. Efforts and policies to promote, enable and enforce recycling and deter dumping have been insufficient. As a result, the patch has grown incredibly quickly. It’s now over three times as large as France and is estimated to include 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic. It poses a huge threat to local marine and atoll ecosystems.

The plastics – which mostly float on the ocean’s surface – are broken down into ever smaller pieces by the sun, but can never completely degrade. This process, called photodegradation, will continue to the point where tiny molecules of polymer are ingested by sea life and enter the food chain. The consequences are likely to be extensive and irreparable, both for the sea life that will be poisoned and for the humans that eat the fish.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch highlights the ugly and damaging fallout of our relationship with plastic and acts as a vast physical testimony to our collective environmental short-sightedness.

Turtle swimming with plastic bag

Cleaning up our act

Individuals, institutions and governments are now making concerted efforts to redress our impact, mitigate long-term damage, and clean up our mess.

The Ocean Cleanup is one of the organisations involved in this gargantuan task. Over the past few years, it’s spearheaded a campaign to clean up plastic waste.

Since its inception in 2013 by 18-year-old Boyan Slat, The Ocean Cleanup has built a team of over 80 technicians and engineers who have worked on various solutions to clear the surface plastic from the North Pacific Gyre. They tried various conventional techniques, including net-dragging, but soon realised that these were expensive and ineffective.

Elegantly simple engineering

What they eventually came up with is an intelligent, passive collection system. A curved, floating 600m-long tube with a dragging anchor is deployed in the gyre. Plastic slowly collects at its centre point, where it can be picked up by ships and taken back to land for recycling.

The tube broke apart during its first stint in the Pacific but has now been relaunched. The ultimate aim is to deploy 60 of them in the North Pacific Gyre. And it’s hoped that many more can be used in gyres around the world, before more plastic is allowed to photodegrade.

The untethered barriers are designed to be moved by the same currents as the surface plastic but at a faster rate as helped by the wind. They collect pieces of plastic as small as 1cm in diameter right up to large “ghost nets”, which can be tens of metres wide.

The Ocean Cleanup hopes that their systems will be able to clean up half of the plastic in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in five years.

Engineering doesn’t always need to be complicated. Trial and error, innovative thinking and hard work are the best ways to achieve the best design.

A holistic approach

Stopping plastic entering the oceans in the first place is crucial. The Ocean Cleanup’s work needs to be part of a wider effort.

Engineers, governments, inventors and consumers must ensure that the amount of plastic entering the ocean is massively cut down and – ultimately – stopped completely.

We must reduce our reliance on plastic. Government bans, campaigns to change businesses’ behaviour, and innovative alternatives are all part of the solution.

But clearing up the mess we’ve already created is important too.

The Ocean Cleanup’s project is the kind of engineering to be celebrated; it attempts to tackle one of the biggest threats to our environment and gives us reasons to be hopeful about the future of our planet.