Last year, a nonprofit organization called The Ocean Cleanup raised $2.2 million dollars toward a project that would remove plastic from an area of the ocean known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Boyan Slat — the group’s 21-year-old founder — plans to use that money to put out about 60 miles of floating barriers, saying he’ll be able to clean up all that plastic trash in about 10 years. But scientists have raised questions about just how feasible — and how successful — Slat’s idea will actually be. Garbage patches, it turns out, are much more difficult to deal with than they might seem at first glance.
Currently, there are six main garbage patches, or hot-spots as some scientists prefer to call them, swirling around our oceans. Five of them — North Pacific, North Atlantic, South Pacific, South Atlantic, Indian Ocean — are created by gyres. They form because of winds and currents, as well as the rotation of the earth, pushing water into the middle of the ocean. Where that water converges is known as a gyre and once water reaches the center of the gyre, it begins to sink. But the trash, which largely consists of plastic, remains swirling, trapped neither wholly near the surface or sinking to the ocean floor.
“It’s like a turd that just won’t flush,” says Erik Van Sebille, an oceanographer at the Imperial College of London. “That’s why there’s accumulation, and that’s why we get these garbage patches.”
Most people know about the North Pacific garbage gyre, which is the garbage patch that Slat hopes to tackle. It’s the biggest and holds the most plastic, holding upwards of 40 percent of the plastic found in all gyres.