Today’s news reports about a plastic bag and sweet wrapper being found at the bottom of the Mariana Trench have got us thinking. We have all heard about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. According to some reports, this floating landfill between Hawaii and California is twice the size of Texas, or three times that of France. NOAA (the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) says its not like a landfill. It is more like a giant smog patch made up of microplastics suspended in the water column. Too small to gather up in a net or suck up with a vacuum cleaner.
In July 2017 we saw news reports about another such patch in the South Pacific, off the coasts of Chile and Peru. This one only 1.5 times the size of Texas. Oh good. But wait. According to a UNEP report way back in 2006, every square mile of ocean worldwide contains on average 46,000 pieces of plastic. Who counts this stuff?
According to the World Economic Forum, not normally known for its alarmism, by 2050 there will be more plastic in the oceans by weight, than fish.
This sounds to us like an environmental security problem if ever there was one. How are we going to get rid of the plastic? The standard answer is that you can’t. Not the vast bulk of it. Discarded fishing nets, plastic containers and car tires can be swept up, possibly. But not the smoglike microplastics. We can only try and stop microplastics getting there in the first place.
But is the standard answer good enough? Or should we be charging our scientists to think harder about how to filter out the microplastics? Fish and turtles and marine mammals can concentrate the stuff. In their intestines. Why can’t we imitate ocean-based life forms and ingest the microplastic by floating machinery? Paid for by the plastics industries that put the plastic there in the first place?