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Cleaning up the Ocean Might be a Bad Idea – For Now.

This week’s course material involves sustainability and the relationship between businesses and the natural environment. On October 29, 2021, USA Today issued a special report about the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch.” According to Cannon (2021) for USA Today, right in the middle of the Pacific Ocean lies the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. As big as three times the size of France and two times the size of Texas, the Great Patch is causing a plethora of negative externalities on marine life.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates that the inner part of the Great Patch contains nearly two trillion pieces of plastic, which weighs nearly 90,000 tons – and it’s only getting bigger. According to Lebreton et al. (2017), an estimated 1.27 – 2.66 million tons of plastic waste flows into the ocean from rivers each year. This weighs approximately one to three trillion tons.

According to National Geographic, the Great Patch’s plastic is not biodegradable, so the plastic only breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces. Most people think of a giant piece of visible floating trash in the middle of the Pacific. In reality, it’s a lot scarier. These broken-down microplastics cannot be seen by the naked eye and the water looks like “cloudy soup” (National Geographic). Marine life suffers as a result. For example, loggerhead sea turtles mistake plastic bags for jellyfish, their favorite food. Thus, turtles will bring back plastic bags to their babies. The babies die of starvation and ruptured organs. Some estimates say that up to 1,000,000 seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals and sea turtles die from plastic ingestion (Stuart, 2021).

USA Today reports that a trash-trapping system named “Jenny” removed 63,000 pounds of trash from the Great Patch. Jenny, over the past 12-weeks, pulled out VHS tapes, a fridge, toilet seats, fishing gear, and golf balls – all of which are being brought back to British Columbia, Canada, for recycling efforts.

Jenny is owned by a famous environmentalist organization, the Ocean Cleanup. According to USA Today, the Ocean Cleanup promises to reduce the Great Pacific Garbage Patch by “50% every five years and to initiate a 90% reduction in floating ocean plastic by 2040” (Cannon, 2021). The recovered plastic is brought back to land and turned into sunglasses, which are in turn sold to fundraise for better Jenny technology.

However, some criticize the Ocean Cleanup’s mission. According to Stuart (2021), cleaning up the plastic without stopping the current influx of plastic may do more harm than good. Shiran et al. (2020) compare cleaning up ocean plastic to mopping up a flooding house. Specifically, Shiran says that “First you have to turn off the source of the water, then you wipe up the floor. I do worry [cleanup efforts] are distracting us from the real solution—closing the tap.” (as cited by Stuart, 2021). This ideology complicates how the Ocean Cleanup may view its plans to clean up the ocean.

Class Discussion: Should the Ocean Cleanup Project continue to invest in machines like Jenny and remove the plastic from the Great Patch? Or should funding be used to limit or eliminate our use of disposable plastics?

Pictured below: microplastics look like “cloudy soup” in the ocean.

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