Great Pacific Garbage Patch: Is clearing all that plastic worth the effort?

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Fish caught up in discarded nets in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch

Ocean Voyages Institute/ZUMA Wire/Shutterstock

IT WAS a glorious sunny day in September 2023. Excitement filled the air and a rainbow stretched across the horizon as the team slowly hauled a giant net out of the glistening sea. The Ocean Cleanup project was in the North Pacific, trialling its System 03 – essentially two ships dragging a 2.2-kilometre-long net designed to remove as much trash as possible. On this occasion, filmed for a promotional video, it managed a record-breaking 18 tonnes in a single scoop.

The Ocean Cleanup was founded in 2012 on a simple premise: trawl ocean plastic hotspots and sweep up the floating refuse. Now, after years of testing and improving its technology, the organisation says it is ready to start systematically removing the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a vast collection of plastic waste between Hawaii and California.

That sounds like a laudable goal. But in recent years, marine scientists have been warning that efforts to mechanically take plastics out of our seas are not only futile, but also potentially harmful. Futile, because we have learned that much of the plastic waste in the oceans is too small or too out of reach to be captured. And harmful, perhaps, for two reasons: because the latest research shows ocean garbage patches are home to all manner of marine life and because clean-up operations could distract from efforts to stem the flow of such waste at source.

So, given what we know…

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