In December, in what’s been touted as the most comprehensive analysis so far of plastic pollution in the world’s oceans, researchers estimated that there are now as many as 51 trillion particles of floating plastic, which cumulatively weigh up to 236,000 metric tons. That’s a whole lot of plastic, and it’s having a catastrophic effect upon aquatic animals such as sea birds. Another recent study reports the birds often have bellies full of plastic waste.
But how do we stop all that plastic — much of which is discarded by fast-developing Asian countries — from floating out to sea and disrupting ecosystems? Some see better waste-handling methods as the answer, while the the Ocean Cleanup Project advocates deploying barriers to contain plastic around the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the vast gyre where much of the plastic and other trash have gathered, to limit and contain the mess while it's being cleaned up.
But Imperial College London oceanographer and climate scientist Erik van Sebille is advocating an even more radical solution. He advocates putting the plastic-collecting barriers off the coast of China and Indonesia, two major contributors to the world’s plastic pollution problem. In a new study published in Environmental Research Letters, he and co-author Peter Sherman conclude that such a movie would eliminate nearly a third of the tiny pieces of microplastic that are entering the oceans.
“It makes sense to remove plastics where they first enter the ocean around dense coastal economic and population centres,” van Sebille said in an Imperial College press release. “It also means you can remove the plastics before they have had a chance to do any harm. Plastics in the patch have traveled a long way and potentially already done a lot of harm.”
In the study, van Sebille and Sherman used both surface and satellite-tracked buoy observations to simulate floating microplastic waste over the next decade. They assessed the sources of plastic and calculated the best places to focus on containing and cleaning up the pollution.
They found that placing plastic collectors like those proposed by The Ocean Cleanup project around coasts was more beneficial than placing them all inside the patch. The project proposes a system of floating barriers and platforms to concentrate and collect plastics and remove them. For a ten-year project between 2015 and 2025, the team found that placing collectors near coasts, particularly around China and the Indonesian islands, would remove 31 per cent of microplastics. With all the collectors in the patch, only 17 per cent would be removed.