“Hope floats,” comments Thierry Maraval. “But, unfortunately, everything else has to learn how to swim”. Maraval captains the Growick 17, a modest Canadian Research Vessel (R/V), circling the calm waters of the Norther Pacific Gyre. The Growick is part of an international endeavor to clear the phenomena known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The project launched several years ago, to much public acclaim, but the mission is faltering for reasons that were foreseeable, and some that have been impossible to explain.
Of the 9.1 billion tonnes of plastic produced since 1950, it is estimated that 7 billion is no longer in use. Efforts to recycle have affected only a minor percentage of the plastic waste in the world (9%), while incineration is the dominant minority management system in place (12%). The rest of the disused plastic populates our land and seas (1). A shocking physical manifestation of this waste was discovered in the mid-1980’s in an area of the North Pacific Gyre (see image above). Due to the fact that the plastic particles sit just below the surface of the ocean, the full scale of the patch has only ever been estimated – the top-end of the estimates are that the patch in the North Pacific Gyre is equal to the size of Russia. In spite of the worrying numbers, the concern about this environmental phenomena only caused outcry in pockets of concerned environmental groups. In the early 2000’s, plastic in the ocean broke into the mainstream, albeit briefly, when it was discovered that fish, caught for eating, contained tiny plastic ‘micro-fibres’; an additional ingredient that was put into many skin cleaning products for their exfoliating properties. There was swift action from the companies making these products and the alarm subsided.
Public, and state, outcry about the effects of plastic in the oceans finally boiled over in 2018 when BBC nature documentary ‘Blue Planet’ broadcast a disturbing scene of an albatross mother feeding her chick with a piece of plastic she had caught from the sea. The desecration of an innocent nature at the hands of such a passive human poisoning triggered a flood of promises from politicians around the world.
Maraval had been searching for finance for his own research expedition since 2014, suddenly there was a wave of investment flooding from multiple government institutions at once – China alone had put aside a $300 million fund to initiate research and solutions to the shallow hanging plastic. However, Maraval expresses deep reservations about the flow of capital. “It was just a ‘gold rush’ scenario. There were projects competing with me for grants that had done no research on their practice. They just had some gizmos that had hoovered up some Evian bottles in a swimming pool and were proposing they could scale it up to cover 280,000 kilometres.” Such projects were backed by bigger interests also. The US patent office reported filing over 6,000 patents on plastic extraction devices between 2019 and 2022 – and a further 20,000 that were ultimately not upheld by the office.
In the immediate aftermath of this global investment flurry, the North Pacific Ocean was like a highway into LA (“In oceanic terms”, Maraval asserts). Boats would cross paths with different projects every few hours. There was little coordination, one boat dragging a pump size of a garbage truck could cross paths with another drawing a 3km dragnet and they could be tangled up for days. With such chaos and competition, the Garbage Patch is estimated to have grown further since the efforts began. Many projects, that were lauded as the solution to the expanding plastic in our ocean, are now part of the patch itself. Maraval shows us photographs of the Resla Teflo-net (2), a 40 million dollar mesh that was to filter out plastic and oil from the ocean water; the Teflo-Net was almost 8km up and down, and it now floats above the debris it was supposed to remove.
Resla were the most notorious of the failures but the losers are numerous and those who are yet to quit are mere survivors, as opposed to victors. “The ridiculous thing is,” Maraval laments as he looks out on his bow, “we still don’t even know how much plastic is down there.”
(2) Due to an injunction from the courts of the state of Philadelphia, Mr. Maraval’s pictures are banned from being published.