Ocean Optimism: The Problem of Plastic Pollution in the Ocean

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

This quarter, we are meeting each week at UC Davis to talk about Ocean Optimism: stories that bring hope, solutions, and creativity to problems facing the ocean. Our class kicked off the first week with a significant problem facing the ocean: how to stop the flow of plastic into the ocean environment where it accumulates and causes harm to the ocean.

As a group, we discussed three main plastic pollution “solutions”. These include collecting trash from the coast in harbors and bays, collecting trash from the open ocean, and most importantly, reducing our use of plastic (the ultimate source of the problem). Individuals, corporations and organizations are all working simultaneously to solve the problem of plastic pollution.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch

We first discussed the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a highly concentrated collection of marine debris and trash between Hawai’i and California. We read about two proposals that could help eliminate and reduce waste located in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch: Boyan Slat’s “Ocean Cleanup” project and Marcus Eriksen’s advocacy for the reduction of the use of plastics.

Slat’s “Ocean Cleanup” proposes to construct floating U-shaped screens acting as artificial coastlines that can collect the plastic materials revolving within the garbage patch. After the garbage is consolidated, the screens store the trash until it can be collected and taken back to land to be sorted and properly disposed of. However, the proposal is still in the prototype stage and some people are skeptical that the project is not viable. Other researchers, including Marcus Eriksen, co-founder and research director of The Five Gyres Institute, propose that the best possible way to reduce waste would be to attack it directly from the source. Eriksen believes that all efforts should be focused on lobbying efforts to enact legislation that would reduce unnecessary and harmful plastic products. This includes the elimination of microbeads within the Microbeads Free Waters Act, passed in 2015.

As a class, we agreed that the most efficient way to prevent ocean pollution is to utilize both prevention methods. While attacking the issue from its source prevents future plastic pollution, collecting the debris from the ocean itself is critical in reducing the damage. By implementing and combining the ideas of both Slat and Eriksen, we can make a positive change in the amount of plastic pollution in our ocean.

An “Eater” of Trash

John Kellett, engineer and sailor, first installed a pilot “Trash Wheel” in 2008 in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor due to his observation of a tragic amount of plastic while sailing.The Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore, a local non-profit organization, sponsored the creation of an even larger trash wheel after the initial prototype was unable to collect larger debris; the second prototype was later placed in the Chesapeake Bay.  

Kellett’s trash wheel operates in a brilliant and simplistic way. As trash gets trapped between the floating booms, it travels towards rotating forks and onto a conveyor belt that is generated by currents from the Jones Fall River and solar panels installed on the device. The conveyor belt then deposits the trash into dumpsters which are brought back to land and emptied by a ferry. With the collected trash, Kellett documents the different items drawn up by the wheels and takes statistical notes on the collected trash. According to his notes, approximately 9 million cigarettes butts and 14,000 styrofoam containers are improperly disposed into the bay every month.

Due to the positive results of the Trash Wheel prototype in Baltimore, Kellett would like to utilize the wheel in bays around the world to remove trash from as many places as possible. Lombok, Indonesia, Panama City, and Rio de Janeiro will likely have trash wheels installed in the future. Furthermore, Kellett would like to install trash wheels to improve American bays such as those in Honolulu, Milwaukee, Atlanta, and Denver.

The real problem: The source is us

In our discussion, we compiled a list of different plastics that we can easily avoid using in our daily lives such as the plastics we use associated with food, such as utensils, food packaging and wrapping, plastic bags, and water bottles. However, one of the most widely used plastic items are straws. Straws are commonly used at fast food joints and restaurants where most straws come alongside the beverage. We agreed that straws are relatively unnecessary and can easily be removed from our daily lives or replaced by reusable or recycled straws. Additionally, an effective way of solving this problem of over usage of straws is by going straight to the source: ask for a drink without a straw at restaurants and cafes!

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

After reviewing what items we could avoid using, we discussed various alternatives to these plastics. One of the alternatives we talked about were reusable water bottles. Plastic water bottles are commonly used in people’s day-to-day life due to their accessibility. A reusable water bottle would be a smart and relatively cheap alternative to the constant use of plastic water bottles. Another alternative was the use of reusable plastic and glass containers for food storage and packing lunches.

Our class also discussed alternatives that could be applied in grocery shopping and the deciding of which items to purchase. One easy way is to utilize reusable canvas bags that can be purchased one time for a cheap price and used again and again; therefore decreasing the demand for plastic grocery bags. This change has already been seen through the plastic bag ban in California in which many grocery and retail stores now only offer plastic bags if a customer pays $0.10 for each. Also, buying in bulk would mean less plastic from individually packaged snack foods. Another simple, but overlooked idea would be paying close attention to the ingredients that are in face washes because many contain plastic microbeads that end up in huge quantities in our oceans. These microbeads end up in our oceans, negatively affecting ocean life, which in turn have adverse affects on human well being.

Most of these plastic saving techniques can be applied to everyday activities, but it is ultimately the decision of each consumer to do their part in reducing, and hopefully one day ending, the overuse of plastic products to aid in saving our oceans.


This blog was written by students in the UC Davis First Year Seminar: Ocean Optimism


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