Plans to diminish Pacific Trash Vortex

September 23, 2009 12:58:14 PM PDT
Three weeks after their return from exploring a vortex of floating plastic garbage 1,000 miles off the Pacific coast, scientists working on Project Kaisei are focused on how to clean up the giant garbage patch.

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The Sausalito-based Ocean Voyages Institute organized the mission, known as Project Kaisei, which sent scientists into the Pacific Ocean to investigate a giant patch of floating plastic garbage and its effect on the environment. The debris is located in the North Pacific Gyre, a whirlpool of four ocean currents that travel in a clockwise direction.

Crews departed from Sausalito Aug. 4 and returned Aug. 31.

Ocean Voyages Institute founder Mary Crowley, also the co-founder of Project Kaisei, said the group's 151-foot vessel, along with another research boat from the San Diego area, performed tests along more than 3,500 miles of ocean.

While specific test results of toxic ocean debris brought back from the garbage patch are not yet available, Crowley said the group has already begun working on how to diminish the broad expanse of plastic bottles, fishing nets, buckets, containers, child and adult-sized plastic chairs and other debris.

"Project Kaisei is very committed to beginning major cleanup efforts next year," she said.

Crowley said the pollution problem was "what we expected to see, or a little worse."

Some have estimated the patch to be roughly the size of Texas, but Crowley likened it to "a field of garbage," with "hundreds of tons" of plastic trash scattered thinly across an enormous expanse of ocean.

The crew felt "a real sadness" in the days after arriving at the site of the garbage patch, she said. "It hit us, actually being out there and seeing all of this garbage way off shore in the beautiful deep blue ocean."

The group's findings created "a real urgency" to begin clean-up efforts, Crowley said.

Scientists are exploring the possibility of using "passive collection devices," that are essentially floating boxes that can collect small pieces of plastic to be retrieved by boat.

Crowley said her institute would also like to work with the fishing industry, having large vessels essentially trawl for trash.

"It would be very easy to get lots of the big pieces of plastic out of the ocean by using conventional fishing methods," she said.

Project Kaisei has partnered with the state Department of Toxic Substances Control, she said. The pair is still seeking more partners, and more funding.

"This is not an issue where anybody is pointing fingers," she said. "It's a problem of commons, and everybody has to work together towards solutions."

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