People across our planet are increasingly aware of the growing amounts of trash floating in our oceans. While we are finding new ways to collect it, the more vexing problem is what to do with it.
The garbage is accumulating in “gyres” which are large systems of circulating ocean currents, kind of like slow-moving whirlpools. Though the oceans are home to many gyres, there are five that have a significant impact on our environment.
For example, our litter which makes its way into the open ocean mixes with junk from northeastern Asia and ends up in Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP), the world’s largest. It is halfway between Hawaii and California and has grown to more than 600,000 square miles; an area which is nearly the size of Alaska.
According to the Ocean Cleanup Foundation, GPGP is not a solid mass of plastic. It includes about 1.8 trillion pieces floating in the sea and weighs 88,000 tons — the equivalent of 500 jumbo jets.
Americans are not alone in contributing to its growth. Surface trawlers operating in GPGP found that two-thirds of the writing on the objects collected were Japanese and Chinese. In all, the skimmers picked products manufactured in 12 different nations.
While much of the junk we see floats in the ocean or lands on beaches, the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) reports roughly 70 percent of human-generated litter, such as glass, metal, and all sorts of cargo and equipment, sinks to the ocean floor. Because of lack of light deep underwater, it is invisible.
Cigarette butts, bags and food wrappers, six-pack rings and bottle caps dominate the refuse washing up on beaches. The now infamous plastic straws account for 4 percent; however, medical wastes, particularly syringes and broken glass, are dangerous to beachgoers.
While we often think of ocean trash as predominately plastic packaging products, GPGP researchers found it is made up mostly of abandoned fishing gear.
According to a recent Ocean Conservancy study, nets alone make up 46 percent of that garbage while the rest largely consists of fishing paraphernalia, such as eel traps, oyster spacers, crates, baskets and rope.
“Ghost nets” raise havoc with marine habitats and sea life. These nets, camouflaged by dim light, wrap around rocky reefs or drift in the open sea. When fish, sea turtles, seabirds, marine mammals and even crabs become entangled, they suffocate.
Avoiding ocean trash and converting the garbage into usable consumer products are important next steps.
Because whales were getting entangled in lines that linked lobster traps together, in 2008 Maine lobstermen were required to switch to weighted lines that did not float up off the bottom. Unusable rope is taken to collection stations along the coast, and Maine Float Rope Company turns it into colorful and durable doormats. It provides local jobs.
In the Philippines, GreenAntz started making building bricks from recycled ocean plastics which are mixed with cement. It produced over 225,000 bricks and program expanded into 15 Philippines cities in 2018.
University of Texas at Arlington civil engineering professor Sahadat Hossain developed a technology for taking plastic from landfills and manufacturing giant pins that, when inserted in the failing soil under roadbeds, stabilizes them.
In Scotland, start-up MacRebur Co. developed technology to turn plastics heading for landfills into pavement for streets, parking lots and driveways.
With global annual plastic consumption reaching 320 million tons, our oceans and landfills are already overloaded. The impetuses is to prevent garbage from reaching our oceans and to create new products from trash and make them profitable to bring to market.
Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist. He recently retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s oldest and largest business organization, and now lives in Vancouver. He can be contacted at