“The goal is to clean up hundreds of tons of garbage,” says Kaisei’s co-founder and Ocean Voyages Institute founder Mary Crowley. “We’ll be figuring out the best methods.” On Kaisei’s second trip, which is scheduled to take place in July or August, plans are in place for a barge with a crane to accompany the organization’s 152-foot sailboat and begin collecting the larger pieces of garbage that entangle birds and mammals and endanger navigation.
Another device the team plans to use is a version of a capture device they tested last summer. The tool, called the “beach,” is an inclined wooden plane that extends below the water level and has a large net on the back end. Water laps over the edge of the incline — much like waves breaking on shore — and passes through the net, which captures debris. It’s an example of mimicking a natural process to clean up a man-made mess.
While some scientists and researchers praise the effort, not all are convinced that a long-term solution will be so easy. Moore is one of them. “I don’t believe that these forays by the Kaisei people are going to be effective in the long run,” he says. “It’s like cleaning up the beach: No one disputes it makes a difference. But the beach [only] looks good until the next high tide or the next rain.”
The key, he says, is stopping the pollution closer to the source — on land — through more recycling programs and tougher littering laws. A United Nations study issued last year reported that Australian surveys indicated that 80 percent of marine debris originates from land-based sources. It’s time, Moore says, to truly implement “cradle-to-cradle” thinking and to put a value on reusing and recycling, no matter the expense. “We are leaving the age of extraction,” he adds. “We’ve got to have a heck of a lot more take-back infrastructure in place.”
Others support the Kaisei effort as a valuable first step. Miriam Goldstein, the chief scientist for Scripps Environmental Accumulation of Plastic Expedition (SEAPLEX) at the University of California at San Diego, collaborated with the Kaisei Project last summer on a research expedition into the Pacific gyre. Goldstein will not be accompanying the clean-up voyage, but she supports the idea.
She also, however, notes that the area of concentrated debris is extremely large and that the vast majority of the pieces are tiny — approximately the size of zooplankton, a key part of the food chain. “So if you take out the [tiny] plastic pieces, you are also taking out the zooplankton, and it could have a potential impact on the ecosystem,” she says.
Goldstein also took part as a visiting researcher last month in one of several student education and research cruises organized by the Sea Education Association (SEA) to better understand the issue of how plastic is getting into the food chain and its effects. Later this month, SEA, which is based in Woods Hole, Mass., will launch a cruise to collect and measure plastic debris.
SEA has been running marine-education expeditions for almost 40 years, operating 134-foot brigantines on monthlong cruises staffed by students. On those trips, ships make twice-daily surface tows to measure plankton, among other things. The program began counting plastic pieces and keeping samples from the tows shortly after R. Jude Wilber, a staff scientist, published an article in 1987 noting that “the problem of plastic debris in the marine environment is cause for increasing concern today.”
Skye Moret, a former scientist with SEA and currently a research assistant at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Woods Hole, Mass., and Kara Lavender Law, an oceanography faculty scientist at SEA, realized a couple of years ago that the data in those tows might offer timely insight into the plastics problem. Moret had already compiled data on Pacific tows for a biological study; it was easy, if time-consuming, to add the data collected about the plastics found in those tows.