Last year Arnie and I went to the Galapagos Islands, about 600 miles west of Ecuador. This is one of the few places on earth where animals are not terrified of people -- the mega-predators of this poor, beleaguered planet. You can walk close to a mother bird nesting with her baby and horror will not fill her eyes. The animals don’t run away from you. They are so friendly, in fact, that guides have to remind you to stay at least six feet away.
We walked down paths with ancient tortoises ambling next to us. We looked into their beautiful eyes and they looked fearlessly back.
In North Carolina, the birds fly away from me in terror even when I’m putting out food for them, and I think what a shame that they have to fear me, their friend. I think, wouldn’t it be wonderful if the whole world could be like the Galapagos? It is the most ideal eco-system on the planet, by my standards.
In contrast to the Galapagos archipelago is another group of oceanic islands constructed soley by human wastefulness and laziness. These “islands” are actually rotating ocean currents, or gyres, that have collected millions of tons of trash in the form of synthetic polymers, or plastics, that float and degrade in the ocean permanently. There are five large gyres, the largest of which is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which covers an area twice as large as Texas.
Most of the plastic breaks down into small pieces less than 1/5 of an inch, creating a thick toxic soup that strangles or poisons millions of marine animals yearly. Ultraviolet light further degrades the plastic, causing it to leach BPA and other toxic derivatives into the water, harming and poisoning marine flora and fauna on a genetic level and wreaking havoc on the oceanic food chain. Oceanographer Charles Moore estimates plastic waste is "dispersed over millions of square miles of ocean and miles deep.” This bizarre contrast to the idyllic Galapagos islands is worse than you can ever imagine. It keeps me up at night and it should you, too.
Is there hope?
In 2010 an aerospace engineering student from Denmark, Boyan Slat, came up with a plan to start cleaning up our oceans by using pods to gather and retrieve the plastic, eventually repurposing it.
Boyan Slat is only 22 year old, yet he has already presented a TEDX talk on the subject and started a foundation called The Ocean Cleanup.
Using biomimicry, Boyan has invented a mechanical marine pod inspired by the shape of the manta rays he saw while scuba diving in Greece. The pods will be combined with floating barriers to work with the existing ocean currents to collect debris and return it to land. He estimates that, when operational, five shipping containers worth of plastic will be retrievable PER DAY.
On June 22, 2016, a testing prototype was installed in the North Sea, 12 nautical miles off the Dutch coast. The system will be in place for one year so that engineers can study the survivability of the system since storms are very severe in the North Sea.
They will use knowledge gained to adapt the pods in order to launch the first prototypical system at the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in 2017.
This is perhaps the most exciting and innovative idea in years. Boyan is fortunate to have backing from the Dutch government and from marine dredging contractor, Royal Boskalis Westminster N.V.
Along with Boyan’s brilliance and innovation must also come a worldwide awareness of this plastic stream and a commitment to stopping it before it gets into our waterways and oceans. Will the world be smart enough to change? Or will human greed take the easy way out and continue to use the oceans as trash bins until we destroy ourselves, too?