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Wageningen Marine Research is committed to long-term research of plastic litter and its impacts on marine wildlife. From that background, the media and public often ask our opinion of The Ocean Cleanup project by Boyan Slat, which aims to clean up plastic from the world's oceans. Marine researchers Jan Andries van Franeker and SENSE PhD candidate Suse Kühn (WU) answer the most frequently-asked questions.
The Ocean Cleanup has estimated that the north Pacific Gyre encircles a garbage patch containing about 80,000 tons of plastic litter (Lebreton et al 2018). That estimate compares reasonably well with some of the earlier estimates from much smaller datasets (Van Sebille et al. 2015). The floating litter in terms of plastic mass mainly consists of larger objects, and almost half is fishing net material. The mass of 80.000 ton accumulated floating plastics approximately equals 1% of the quantity of plastics lost to sea ANNUALLY from land-based sources, estimated at between 5 to 13 million tonnes of plastic (Jambeck et al. 2015), a range often simplified to about 8 million tonnes.
In combination with debris from marine sources (fisheries, aquaculture, shipping, offshore industry) the ‘fishable’ quantify of plastics from the Pacific Garbage Patch will thus be well below 1% of the plastics that we ANNUALLY lose to our oceans. When the Ocean Cleanup works according to plan at its full scale of about 60 units of the current 600m model, it expects over a period of five years to be able to remove about half of the plastics from the garbage patch, so roughly 40,000 tonnes. That quantity thus certainly represents less than 0.5% of our annual plastic input, or less than 0.1% per operational year of the Ocean Cleanup. Of course, each bit of plastic taken out of the ocean may help, but it is far away from an efficient clean-up of the plastics that we continuously lose to our environment.