What Progress Has Been Made on “Garbage Island”?

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The “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” is the name for an accumulation of debris in sections of the Pacific Ocean. Also called “Garbage Island,” the phenomenon has been talked about for years, but there haven’t been many updates about its changes, let alone news of progress on efforts to clean it up. Experts aren’t sure how exactly to quantify the amount of trash in the ocean, but they know enough to acknowledge that it’s a problem for human, animal and ocean health.  

What exactly is Garbage Island? When debris makes its way into the ocean, strong currents and wind often end up moving it around. Those currents lead to three different zones in the Pacific Ocean where the debris accumulates. The island is made up of the Eastern Garbage Patch near California and the Western Garbage Patch near Japan. It’s also believed that there’s debris dispersed between the two throughout an area of ocean referred to as the subtropical convergence zone. This ocean litter can decimate marine life and impact the health of our beaches, among many other effects.

Garbage Island isn’t so dense that people can’t sail through it — but how exactly is it changing? Activists and nonprofits are doing their part to help reduce the waste that’s collected in our oceans, and various other groups are undertaking different efforts to limit the amount of trash that gets into our waterways in the first place. There’s still a long way to go, but in the spirit of progress, we’re highlighting the ways ocean cleanup efforts are working. 

The Ocean Cleanup’s Innovative Progress

Boyan Slat speaks with Sharon Dijksama before unveiling the prototype for System 001. Photo Courtesy: Michael Porro/Getty Images

As a teen, Dutch inventor Boyan Slat noticed plastic bags in the water while swimming in Greece. A few years and one TEDxTalk later, he formed The Ocean Cleanup in 2013 with a huge goal in mind: to clean up our oceans. The nonprofit set its sights on Garbage Island and is now a leader in the ocean cleanup initiative there. 

The Ocean Cleanup’s greatest work has come from its innovative trash-collection equipment systems called System 001 and System 002. The first system rolled out in 2018 and passively collected debris from the oceans for just three months, but the organization learned a lot about large-scale ocean cleanups in that time. System 002 proved to be faster and had increased steering capabilities. This allowed System 002 to collect more trash and aim for different clusters of debris. Both methods use large ships and nets to collect plastic under the ocean’s surface. A new method, System 003, is already in development. 

Using learnings from System 002’s 2021 voyages, The Ocean Cleanup believes it can optimize waste removal efforts. The Ocean Cleanup’s goal is to remove all debris from the Pacific Garbage Patch by 2040. This seems like a lofty timeline, but the progress so far is admirable. By February 22, 2022, System 002 had performed 23 expeditions and removed more than 121,298 pounds of garbage from the Western Patch. The nonprofit did pointed out that this number is only 1/1,500th of the patch altogether, but slow progress can still lead to change. 

How Else Are We Combating Garbage Island? 

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Other efforts to stop the Pacific Garbage Patch are happening closer to home. Grassroots efforts like Ocean Defenders Alliance are making a lot of strides near the beaches of Hawaii and California. Instead of using large ships and nets, Ocean Defenders Alliance takes a more hands-on approach. 

Scuba diving, a popular vacation activity, can actually help combat environmental disaster. Volunteers for Ocean Defenders Alliance are truly getting their hands dirty by diving into the ocean and taking out garbage and debris. Using one 55-foot vessel as their home base, divers physically remove garbage from the ocean — it’s not uncommon for volunteers to remove 5,000 pounds of trash in a single expedition. It’s positive that people are accomplishing so much, even though it’s also troubling that there was so much trash to begin with. 

Cleanups that happen closer to the shores can prevent future additions to Garbage Island. Efforts like these are preventing the patch from becoming an actual island. Scuba diving may be a popular sporting activity, but it can also empower ocean cleanup efforts. 

Progress Is Happening, But Hard Work Is Still Vital

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While activists and nonprofit groups are making progress, there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done. Reuters was quick to point out that The Ocean Cleanup is collecting thousands of pounds of debris when it’s estimated that millions of tons of trash are dumped in the oceans each year. In addition, the boats and devices that The Ocean Cleanup uses run on fossil fuels, which also pollute the ocean and lead to climate change. The nonprofit is committed to lowering its carbon footprint, but it’s still contending with these issues among the greater efforts to end climate change. 

The organization’s progress, however, does breathe new life into what sometimes feels like a losing battle. If nonprofits are able to accomplish so much, imagine how much could get done with more help in the form of government regulations and large-scale cleanup campaigns. Since the ocean is international territory, ocean cleanup is also an opportunity for nations to come together for a just cause. 

There are also steps you can take to avoid contributing to Garbage Island and help oceans at large. Many of the best ways to help are things we learn early on that we just need to put into practice. Don’t litter, especially when you’re near bodies of water. Always cut up the plastic rings that cans of soft drinks come in, or opt for cans packaged in recyclable boxes. Use tote bags instead of single-use plastic bags while shopping for necessities. New uses for plastic are being explored, but the material requires a lot of fuel to recycle. 

Avoiding the use of plastic in general can help, but it’s unavoidable a lot of the time. Climate change can be an overwhelming subject to think about, too, so be kind to yourself. A lot of people are pitching in to help, and progress is being made. And bigger breakthroughs may already be on their way.