A high-seas mission departs from San Francisco next month to map and explore a
sinister and shifting 21st-century continent: one twice the size of Texas
and created from six million tonnes of discarded plastic.
Scientists and conservationists on the expedition will begin attempts to
retrieve and recycle a monument to throwaway living in the middle of the
The toxic soup of refuse was discovered in 1997 when Charles Moore, an
oceanographer, decided to travel through the centre of the North Pacific
gyre (a vortex or circular ocean current). Navigators usually avoid oceanic
gyres because persistent high-pressure systems — also known as the doldrums
— lack the winds and currents to benefit sailors.
Mr Moore found bottle caps, plastic bags and polystyrene floating with tiny
plastic chips. Worn down by sunlight and waves, discarded plastic
disintegrates into smaller pieces. Suspended under the surface, these tiny
fragments are invisible to ships and satellites trying to map the plastic
continent, but in subsequent trawls Mr Moore discovered that the chips
outnumbered plankton by six to one.
The damage caused by these tiny fragments is more insidious than
strangulation, entrapment and choking by larger plastic refuse. The
fragments act as sponges for heavy metals and pollutants until mistaken for
food by small fish. The toxins then become more concentrated as they move up
the food chain through larger fish, birds and marine mammals.
“You can buy certified organic farm produce, but no fishmonger on earth can
sell you a certified organic wild-caught fish. This is our legacy,” said Mr
Because of their tiny size and the scale of the problem, he believes that
nothing can be solved at sea. “Trying to clean up the Pacific gyre would
bankrupt any country and kill wildlife in the nets as it went.”
In June the 151ft brigantine Kaisei (Japanese for Planet Ocean) will
unfurl its sails in San Francisco to try to prove Mr Moore wrong. Project
Kaisei’s flagship will be joined by a decommissioned fishing trawler armed
with specialised nets.
“The trick is collecting the plastic while minimising the catch of sea life.
We can’t catch the tiny pieces. But the net benefit of getting the rest out
is very likely to be better than leaving it in,” says Doug Woodring, the
leader of the project.
With a crew of 30, the expedition, supported by the Scripps Institution of
Oceanography and Brita, the water company, will use unmanned aircraft and
robotic surface explorers to map the extent and depth of the plastic
continent while collecting 40 tonnes of the refuse for trial recycling.
“We have a few technologies that can turn thin plastics into diesel fuel.
Other technologies are much more hardcore, to deal with the hard plastics,”
says Mr Woodring, who hopes to run his vessels on the recycled fuel.
Plastics bags, food wrappers and containers are the second and third most
common items in marine debris around the world, according to the Ocean
Conservancy, which is based in Washington. The proportion of tiny fragments,
known as mermaid’s tears, are less easily quantified.
The UN’s environmental programme estimates that 18,000 pieces of plastic have
ended up in every square kilometre of the sea, totalling more than 100
million tonnes. The North Pacific gyre — officially called the northern
subtropical convergence zone — is thought to contain the biggest
concentration. Ideal conditions for shifting slicks of plastic also exist in
the South Pacific, the Indian Ocean and the North and South Atlantic, but no
research vessel has investigated those areas. If this exploratory mission is
successful, a bigger fleet will depart in 2010.
Mr Woodring admits that Project Kaisei has limitations. “We won’t be able to
clean up the entire ocean. The solution really lies on land. We have to
treat plastics in a totally different way, and stop them ever reaching the