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Garbage Patches: The Cost of a Cleanup (Part 2)

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By: Carey Morishige, Pacific Islands Regional Coordinator, NOAA Marine Debris Program

Over the last several years, the infamous “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” has gained popularity. Whether described as an island of trash or a soup of plastic, it has haunted the dreams of ocean conservationists. As I described in my last post, there are a lot of misconceptions about the so-called garbage patch, among them the size and amount of marine debris entrained in this area. To understand the many unknowns about the ‘garbage patch,’ you must first understand what the area really is. In a nutshell, it is a large area of marine debris concentration caused by the clockwise movement of the surface of the ocean. Sailors and fishermen have known of this area for decades—to them it is the North Pacific Subtropical High, a high pressure zone typically avoided by sailors.

One of the common questions we receive is: Why can’t we go out and clean this area up? Sounds easy and simple—if only it was! There are many factors that must be taken into account, such as the fact that these areas of concentrated marine debris move and change throughout the year and many of these areas also have abundant sea life, much of which is microscopic.

Let’s crunch some quick and dirty numbers on the cost of a cleanup:

Suppose we were to attempt to clean up less than 1% of the North Pacific Ocean (a 3-degree swath between 30° and 35°N and 150° to 180°W), which would be approximately 1,000,000 km2. Assume we hired a boat with an 18 ft (5.5 m) beam and surveyed the area within 100 m off of each side of the ship.  If the ship traveled at 11 knots (20 km/hour), and surveyed during daylight hours (approximately 10 hours a day), it would take 67 ships one year to cover that area! At a cost of $5,000-20,000/day, it would cost between $122M and $489M for the year.  That’s a lot of money—and that’s only for boat time. It doesn’t include equipment or labor costs (keep in mind that not all debris items can be scooped up with a net).

Derelict nets are frequently encountered marine debris items, and cannot easily be scooped up with net.
Photo courtesy of NOAA Fisheries Observer Program

The ultimate solution to the global problem of marine debris is not in clean up and removal (we can do that every day for the rest of our lives). The solution lies in prevention—stopping marine debris at the source; preventing trash from getting into our oceans and waterways in the first place!

For more information on the garbage patch and ways that you can help prevent marine debris, check out the NOAA Marine Debris Program website.

Author: NOAA Marine Debris Program

The NOAA Marine Debris Program envisions the global ocean and its coasts, users, and inhabitants free from the impacts of marine debris. Our mission is to investigate and solve the problems that stem from marine debris, in order to protect and conserve our nation's marine environment, natural resources, industries, economy, and people.

5 thoughts on “Garbage Patches: The Cost of a Cleanup (Part 2)

  1. Cleanup is a valid solution. It’s not the only solution, but it is one of the necessary components of the solution(s). Please work w colleagues to secure the money and improve methods. Yes, it is costly and difficult. The health of the ocean, and out entire planet, depends on us taking responsibility and taking action. Good luck with future cleanups efforts. I’ll see you at the beach. You’ll recognize me as the guy (w friends) picking up marine debris and hauling it out of the ocean ecosystem.

  2. we must be responsible in the way we dump wastes,especially plastic material..A cleanup is good, we can and will go further to push for the right policies to protect the environment..Join us in Nigeria as we do our second cleanup

  3. Fantastic blog, timely and very necessary. Cleaning up plastic waste in the middle of the ocean is a pipe-dream. Beaches can be cleaned, sure. A few lucky larger items can get scooped out of the ocean, sure. But until we stop force-feeding the ocean with countless tons of consumer & industrial plastic every year from every point-source imaginable, there is only one logical direction & trend.

  4. all out the beverage manufacturers and packaging companies that make the disposable plastic so abundant in our environment. ic so abundant in our environment. Polluting by design must stop.

  5. I completely agree that the solution lies in prevention, stopping marine debris at the source. But let’s not slow down or in any way discourage attempts to clean up the mess we’ve created.

    Some days I’m out on the beach and I only pick up a pocketful of trash, others days I’m dragging rouge crab traps and mussel cages to my car. I’ll never stop. We all created this problem and we’re still blind to plastics effects.

    Give up our plastic bags?! YES, or it should cost us $1.00 for every bloody bag we request and that money should go straight into a fund to clean up the mess it’s going to make. Want bottled water? SURE, and it’s gonna cost you $5 with $4 of it going into a clean up fund. Corporations making these products won’t like this one bit so we’re gonna have a big fight on our hands from every angle . . .

    Thanks to everyone who stoops over and picks up trash on our beaches! You’re my heroes!

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