On the totem pole of societal priorities, many issues are viewed as more important than protecting Earth’s oceans. There are more apparent issues, in the media and in our everyday lives, that we cannot look away from, unlike what happens in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Unfortunately, the consequences of our lack of proactivity are wreaking havoc across the world. Unless purifying, preserving and protecting our oceans through the use of newly engineered technology becomes a number one priority for each continent, we will permanently damage Earth’s ecosystems.
The oceans are vital to the health and productivity of life on Earth. Not only do the oceans directly affect the weather by acting as a thermostat for the planet, they reduce the level of carbon dioxide in the air and house potentially life-saving cures scientists have yet to discover —it is said we have not even discovered half of what is in the oceans (Boileau, 2015). The damage currently being done to these oceans is detrimental, and we continue to dig ourselves deeper into a hole that we soon may not be able to get out of.
Eighty percent of the pollution causing damage to marine life around the world is from land—and the only animals polluting the oceans with thousands of tons of plastic is us.
One of many reasons to act as soon as possible is to rid the ocean of as much plastic as possible while the pieces are still large, before they have broken down.
“Ninety-five percent of plastic in the ocean is large debris-it is important to act now before it all crumbles into smaller plastics and eventually, into microplastics-the most dangerous form” (Grossman, 2016). Even the largest pieces are fragmented over time, due to “UV degrading the plastic, in combination with the mechanical impact of ocean waves, causing it to fragment into even smaller pieces, known as microplastic-pieces smaller than five millimeters across”. These nearly miniscule pieces of plastic are nearly impossible to clean, and despite the fact that they
may be invisible to the naked eye, they are still extremely dangerous. Tiny organisms ingest these particles and are contaminated, and this contamination will work its way up the food chain to top predators—including humans, which will ingest the highest concentration and therefore, the most dangerous. This contamination in our seafood can cause “extremely serious health problems, everything from cancer to long term immune system damage”.
Sarah Grossman of The Huffington Post states that “at this stage of ocean pollution, without any reform or massive changes in effort, the world’s oceans would contain, pound for pound, more plastic than fish by the year of 2050”. Some places, more than others, are guilty of extremely high levels of pollution. States and countries with borders on the ocean provide nonpoint source pollution, a result of runoff. For example, “In the Los Angeles area alone, ten metric tons of plastic fragments—like grocery bags, straws, and soda bottles—are carried into the Pacific Ocean every day”.
This massive amount of garbage polluting the Pacific Ocean is collecting in The North Pacific Gyre—an island of garbage twice the size of Texas, where the total number of floating pieces of plastic outnumbers the marine life six-to-one (Rinkesh, 2016). It is not difficult to see how all the pollution occurring daily around the world can accumulate and have deleterious effects on the entire Earth.
Although it will not be an easy fix, all hope is not lost. Boyan Slat, a twenty-one-year-old with a passion for preserving the ocean, has made headlines in the past year for being the potential savior of the water on Earth. Slat invented what he described in an interview with Sarah Grossman (2016) as a massive underwater V-shaped wall that would corral trash passing through the waves into one concentrated area, which could then be easily removed and recycled…and if successful, it could remove almost have of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which is 154 million pounds of trash, in only ten years. Current cleanup efforts would take 79,000 years to achieve the same amount of trash removal from the oceans.
This underwater wall is not yet fully launched, but could change the world if successful. The pilot to test extraction system will take place in Japan at some point in 2017, and if it proves effective, a full scale version will be launched in 2020 (Grossman, 2016 p.6). It is unknown what size of debris can be caught by the wall, but ridding the ocean of all the larger pieces is a huge step for the health of the oceans and the entire planet.
According to the website dedicated to this project, this wall “acts as an artificial coastline, and is 100% powered by natural ocean currents” (“The largest cleanup” 2016). Because the wall is shaped like a V, the currents also allow for the pollutants to be further concentrated by being pushed into the middle, making a simple cleanup even simpler. In a study published by Nature Scientific Reports on The Ocean Cleanup website, it is shown that plastic pollution is not “spread from ocean surface to seabed,” as previously believed, but rather “primarily resting on or near the surface” (“The largest cleanup” 2016). This is great news for the Slat’s project, because his wall does not have to extend down for miles to the seabed, making it much simpler to install and collect from.
Because the Ocean Cleanup relies solely on ocean currents, there is no necessary external energy source needed, and therefore cause less cost limitations. The simplicity of this machine is also proven in its scalability. Because it is, in simplest terms, a huge net, it can be used in many environments, scaled to the necessary size. The wall is designed to be flexible, adaptable, and capable of withstanding the toughest environmental conditions, making it extremely secure.
As support for the project grows, we are seeing more ocean-inspired projects from companies around the world. Adidas recently unveiled a “sneaker made from recycled ocean waste…made in collaboration with Parley for the Oceans” (Vincent, 2016, p.1). Parley for the Oceans is a group of environmentalists trying to raise awareness about the effects of ocean pollution. Adidas executive Eric Liedtke announced, “we will make one million pairs of shoes using Parley Ocean Plastic in 2017—and our ultimate ambition is to eliminate virgin plastic from our supply chain”. Companies like Adidas have an incredible amount of influence on young adults and what they perceive as important.
If more companies could join together in an effort to clean the oceans and raise awareness of how each person contributes to pollution, we could expedite the process exponentially. Without the popularity of Slat’s invention, companies such as Adidas would not be as interested in protecting the ocean. The more we demand of our companies, the more we will get- this is why we can never stop striving towards bettering the health of our planet. We cannot afford to lose our oceans.
With increased awareness and a higher sense of responsibility as the consequences become more apparent, young adults and even children are becoming concerned with the health of the oceans and the environment in which they live. As science continues to prove the importance of our Earth’s water to not only our species but every species on the planet, we realize the errors of our ways. While we cannot completely erase the damage that has been done, we can work towards a better future and a smarter society. The new cleanup technology, invented by Boyan Slat is possibly an innovation that can change the world and kick start a planetary movement towards preservation. One day I hope we praise Slat as the boy that saved the world.