And the award for green cause of the year goes to . . . the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. After decades of anonymity, the floating trash pile located midway between California and Hawaii had a breakout 2009—luring news crews, a trio aboard a raft made of junk, a zero-impact rower, and some hipsters from Vice magazine. Oh, and it was featured on Oprah. But most of the coverage (even you, Oprah) failed to ask one rather important question: Now that we know it’s out there, what do we do about it?
This past summer, a team aboard the schooner Kaisei experimented with ways to capture, clean, and recycle the plastic bits into diesel fuel, with limited success. Another proposal would utilize a giant floating artificial beach to scoop up and filter the junk. But an immediate solution seems unlikely. “Look, I’m all for cleanup,” says David de Rothschild, an NG Emerging Explorer who plans to sail to the Garbage Patch in the Plastiki, a ship made of plastic bottles (read blog dispatches here). “But 70 percent of all marine plastics are at the bottom of the ocean, and we dump eight million tons more into the sea each year. It’s pushing water uphill to try to clean up this mess.” The best way to eliminate oceanic garbage, de Rothschild argues, is to keep it on land: “The Plastiki is about turning something we’re told is a throwaway into a valuable commodity. If people change the way they see plastic, they may stop tossing the stuff.”
—Text by Ryan Bradley; Illustration by Matthew Hollister