Staggering as these figures are, similar garbage patches occur elsewhere in the world’s oceans.
Whilst the plastic scooper faces criticism that it may inadvertently collect marine life or that the money may be better spent preventing plastics entering the oceans in the first place, it does illustrate the size of the problem, and is at least an attempt to tackle it.
The idea is not a new one. A specially built plastic scooper of a more modest scale has been operating on the River Irwell in Manchester for well over five years, cleaning away over 5,000 plastic bottles per year and over 35,000 litres of litter in total. The boat is operated by APEM on behalf of a partnership that includes Salford City Council and the Mersey Rivers Trust.
But perhaps the bigger threat is the plastic that can’t be seen by the naked eye; so-called microplastics.
These tiny pieces of plastic include fragments of larger items as well as microbeads that are commonly used in cosmetics. Once in the marine environment they are impossible to remove and can become ingested by marine life, entering the food chain.
In marine and estuarine benthic and plankton samples analysed by APEM, samples with microplastics often outnumber those without. Each sample, representing as little as one tenth or one hundredth of a square metre of seabed or a few hundred litres of filtered seawater, may contain hundreds of microplastics. Even when these samples are taken in deeper water further offshore litter is often present.
In fact, our staff have seen – and photographed – the evidence of floating litter patches further out at sea. Our ornithology team carries out digital aerial surveys of offshore wildlife for the wind industry in the UK, Europe and US, snapping millions of ultra-high resolution images of the sea surface in order to record birds, sharks, turtles, dolphins and other species.
While less than ten per cent of the images show wildlife, sadly some of them do reveal large accumulations of drifting litter. Eventually much of this litter will break down, fragment and sink.
In the Great Pacific garbage patch, removing plastics before they begin to fragment will certainly be easier. But new plastics will constantly be replacing any that are removed.
Preventing plastics and litter reaching the oceans is therefore critical.
Here there is reason for hope. While its tangible, visual nature and striking images in the news and other media platforms help make marine litter a problem that people can understand, easy-to-achieve initiatives help us to feel like we’re doing our bit. Drives to reduce single use plastics, such as drinking straws, and the introduction of the five pence charge on single use carrier bags are all starting to show benefits.
Other initiatives such as the #OneLess campaign, which strives to reduce the number of single use water bottles entering the ocean from London, or the two minute beach clean, which provides facilities to collect and dispose of rubbish at beaches, have also seen a good degree of success, showing that this is an issue that the public want to see tackled.
As with any successful campaign or hot topic, there is a danger that people may become desensitised and the spotlight move on the next issue of the day. But for the moment, collecting a bag of rubbish from a beach or reducing consumption of single use plastics are achievable aims for most people and can make us feel that we are making a real difference; and indeed we are.
However, the drive to tackle marine plastics should not divert attention, or indeed funding, from other issues affecting the marine, freshwater and terrestrial environments. Over-fishing, coral bleaching, climate change, non-native species, ocean acidification and habitat loss, to name but a few, are still issues that are on-going.
Losing sight of these issues could be the true hidden danger of marine plastics.
If you have any queries, please contact Chris Ashelby, Marine Technical Specialist.
Alternatively you can email us here. Or call 0161 442 8938.