Located midway between Japan and the west coast of the United States, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a vast, swirling beltway of litter floating just beneath the water's surface. The accumulation of debris—nonbiodegradable remnants of mass production and ocean dumping—already has begun to paralyze the ocean's ecosystem. Plastic in the ocean breaks down into tiny oily fragments that shade areas of the sea floor from sunlight, are consumed by fish and birds, and contaminate the human food supply.
Some say that cleaning it up is a lost cause. But Ruth Shields, '84, participation director for the nonprofit GP2 Project, begs to differ: "One of our mottos is 'doing the impossible now.' "
The global project's aim is not only to collect the plastic, but to do so in an environmentally-friendly way—utilizing a zero-waste "green circle system." The group hopes to convert their vessels to accept algae fuel and ethanol made from byproducts of beer brewing. As for what to do with all that plastic, one idea is to use intense heat to convert waste materials into a nontoxic, stable carbon char that can be reused as fertilizer.
GP2's first expedition, crewed by volunteers, is scheduled to depart in March. It will be a small step forward, Shields acknowledges, but the long-term goal is not just about cleaning up a giant mess—it's about curtailing future destruction of the earth's ecosystem.
AIMEE MILES, ’10, is an intern at Stanford