A trip to the remote north Pacific gyre provides a stark reality check on the scale of the planet’s plastic waste crisis. “You’ve been sailing at 10 knots for five days, you’re alone. You don’t see any other boats. And then you find toothbrushes and lighters floating around you,” says Laurent Lebreton, head of research at the Ocean Cleanup, a Dutch non-profit organisation that develops technology to extract marine plastics. “It’s just very surreal.”
What he finds most striking, however, are the metres of netting, ropes and line, luminous orange buoys, crab pots and fish traps: remnants of the global fishing industry, drifting around in what is known as the “great Pacific garbage patch”.
From samples gathered by the Ocean Cleanup’s floating boom system – which rakes in plastic from this swirling gyre – Lebreton’s new research deciphered clues on some of the plastic fragments, which suggest that most of that waste can be traced back to five industrialised fishing nations: the US, Japan, South Korea, China and Taiwan.
Typically, the finger of blame for marine plastic is pointed at terrestrial pollution from rapidly developing economies in south-east Asia and elsewhere, Lebreton says. But his fresh discoveries highlight the contribution of industrialised nations to this problem, too.