Plastic pollution in the ocean

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What’s the challenge?

Plastics have become an integral part of our daily lives with virtually everything we do and much of the food and drink we consume involving the use of plastics in some form or other. However our throw away society is polluting large areas of the world’s oceans with plastics, threatening marine life and food chains. How did it get there? What are the practical solutions? And is it time to re-evaluate how we use and reuse plastic?


  • 6 million plastic bottles of water are bought each day in the UK
  • The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is estimated to be bigger than the size of the State of Texas.
  • 1997 – The year that Captain Charles Moore discovered the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. He is an American yacht-racer who was sailing home across the North Pacific from a competition in Hawaii, USA. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch had been predicted as early as the late 1980s
  • We produce and use 20 times more plastic today than we did 50 years ago.
  • 86 Kgs: The estimated amount of plastic thrown out per household each year in UK.
  • Nurdles: Plastic pellets used in plastic manufacturing.If these remain in the ocean, they can accumulate toxins and eventually work their way into the food chain as marine animals digest these thinking they are food.

Source: WRAP, 2010

Panel discussion

The Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) held a panel discussion on 13 October 2010 to discuss the issue.

David de Rothschild, Founder of Adventure Ecology and leader of the Plastiki exhibtion
David de Rothschild. David is an adventurer, environmentalist and the founder of a group that primarily uses exploration and storytelling as a way to give nature a voice. David’s passion and commitment to action has seen him ski, dogsled and kite to both the North and South poles as well as visiting some of the world’s most remote and fragile regions in order to bring wide-spread media attention and, moreover, solutions to urgent global environmental issues.

From March to July 2010, David and a crew of five undertook the latest expedition, the Plastiki, sailing across the Pacific Ocean on a catamaran made buoyant by 12,500 reclaimed plastic bottles to beat waste. ( David is recognized as a National Geographic Emerging Explorer, Clean up the World Ambassador, UNEP Climate Hero and a Young Global Leader respectively.

”Here it was this amazingly disgusting manifestation of modern consumerism swirling across our oceans” David de Rothschild

”Maybe it isn’t plastic that we should blame, but more our inability to understand and use it and more importantly how we dispose of it” David de Rothschild

”I created a vessel to show waste as a resource” David de Rothschild


The Plastiki

The Plastiki is an innovative catamaran which included using 12,500 post-consumer plastic bottles for buoyancy. Their mission is to witness some of the most devastating waste accumulation on our planet, including the Pacific Garbage Patch.

David de Rothschild conceived the idea of the Plastiki after reading a report Ecosystems and Biodiversity in Deep Waters and High Seas by UNEP which indicated that the world’s oceans were in serious threat from pollution, in particular plastic waste. On 20 March 2010 the sailing vessel set off from San Francisco, California to cross the Pacific Ocean with a crew of six: British skipper Jo Royle, co-skipper David Thompson, expedition diver Olav Heyerdahl, filmmakers Max Jourdan and Vern Moen, and expedition leader David de Rothschild. Plastiki arrived in Sydney Harbour on 26 July 2010.

During the voyage, the Plastiki explored a number of environmental hotspots such as, soon to be flooded island nations, damaged coral reefs and the challenges faced by our acidifying oceans and marine debris, in particular plastic pollution, in the oceans. The expedition aimed to raise awareness of these issues and showcase how waste can be used as a valuable resource through the use of the everyday, highly consumed plastic bottle.

The Plastiki began her adventure nearly four years ago after taking inspiration from a report issued by UNEP called ‘Ecosystems and Biodiversity in Deep Waters and High Seas’ and Thor Heyerdahl’s epic 1947 expedition, The Kon-Tiki. True to Adventure Ecology’s values, a compelling and pioneering expedition was needed that would not only inform, but would also captivate, activate and educate the world that waste is fundamentally inefficient design.

With more efficient design and a smarter understanding of how we use materials, principally plastic, waste can be transformed into a valuable resource, in turn helping to lessen our plastic fingerprints on the world’s oceans.

The Plastiki: Vital Statistics

Length: 60 feet
Beam: 23 feet
Weight: 12 tons
Mast Heights: 40/60 feet
No. of plastic bottles: 12,500 approx.
Average speed: 5 knots
Distance travelled: 7,500 miles

To undertake the Plastiki expedition Adventure Ecology was not only influenced by the principles of ‘cradle-to-cradle’ design and biomimicry but brought together a multi-faceted team from the fields of sustainable design, boat building, architecture and material science in order to foster a collection of new ideas and cutting edge technologies that allow the Plastiki to be a truly unique, one-of-a-kind expedition vessel.

During the first phase, a team of experts including Cameron Sinclair, co-founder of Architecture for Humanity, helped to answer the question “could a fully recyclable performing vessel be engineered almost entirely out of reclaimed plastic bottles, cross the Pacific whilst demonstrating real world solutions?”

Watch Cameron Sinclair discuss ways to improve our response to natural disasters Watch Cameron Sinclair discussing how we can improve our response to natural disasters at a 21st Century Challenges event in May 2010

The Plastiki was part inspired by the famous Kon-Tiki voyage – the expedition, led by Thor Heyerdahl, sought to prove that Polynesian settlement by South American explorers was possible. He did this by assembling a raft made from carved out balsa husks, and then floating west from Peru utilizing the trade winds.

The sails, some of the first in the world to be made from recycled PET, were installed atop the Plastiki. The masts are made from aluminium irrigation piping and consist of 98% post consumer billet. A unique recyclable plastic material made from srPET makes up her super structure. The secondary bonding is reinforced using a newly developed organic glue made from cashew nuts and sugar cane

Fitting the bottles together in the right way was key to producing a solid structure. Inspiration was largely taken from the formation of a pomegranate which packs together many soft seeds to create a hard outer structure.



Dr Simon Boxall, Oceanographer, National Oceanography Centre, Southampton
Simon is a lecturer in Oceanography at the University of Southampton, National Oceanography Centre (UK).  He has worked on secondment for projects for UNESCO, The European Union Research Centre, The World Bank, The British Council, and European Space Agency over the years.  Current research covers a spectrum of topics from climate change in the ocean to coastal dynamics and pollution, and he has carried out various studies on plastics in the oceans.

One of his more worrying finds was the high level of plastic rubbish on a remote Arctic island over 1000km from the nearest town or village, taken there from all countries bordering the Atlantic by the ocean currents.

Simon has a responsibility for public understanding and has been involved in documentaries for Channel 4, Sky, BBC, National Geographic and Discovery Channel. He regularly appears on radio and TV news and current affairs broadcasts across the World relating to a broad range of ocean, coastal and climate issues.


Peter Davis OBE, Director General, British Plastic Federation
Peter has been the Director General of the British Plastics Federation from 1 October 1997.  Before that he was the Chief Executive of Incpen (The Industry Council for Packaging and the Environment) from October 1993 – September 1997.

He has previously held the following positions: Director of Marketing; Membership and International Affairs at the Royal Institute of British Architects; Head of Home Affairs in the Conservative Research Department; Special Adviser to Environment Secretary Kenneth Baker MP. He has held management positions in the following companies: 3M Medical Products, Dylon International and has also worked for INCO and Metal Box.

Peter is a Liveryman of the Worshipful Company of Horners, the plastics industry’s Livery company in London.  In 2006 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and in 2009 became the Chairman of the Alliance of Industries Association (nine chemical use trade associations) and in 2010 was appointed a Vice Chairman of the Construction Products Association.  He has also held the position of Deputy Chairman of the Enterprise Forum (a business contact group with Coalition Ministers) since 1997.

Peter is half Danish and was a Goodwill Ambassador for the City of Copenhagen from 1997-2007.  He takes an active interest in anti-littering campaigns and was a Director and Trustee of the Tidy Britain Group from 1996-2006.



Sylvia Earle, Oceanographer, Founder of Mission Blue and Explorer In Residence at The National Geographic

Sylvia Earle, is known as a “Living Legend” and the first “Hero for the Planet,” by the Library of Congress, USA. Sylvia is an oceanographer, explorer, author, and lecturer with experience as a field research scientist. She also is executive director for corporate and nonprofit organizations, including the Aspen Institute, the Conservation Fund, American Rivers, Mote Marine Laboratory, Duke University Marine Laboratory, Rutgers Institute for Marine Science, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, National Marine Sanctuary Foundation, and Ocean Conservancy.

Former chief scientist of NOAA, Earle is founder of the Mission Blue Foundation and chair of the Advisory Council for the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies. She has a B.S. from Florida State University, an M.S. and a Ph.D. from Duke University, and 15 honorary degrees. She has authored more than 150 scientific, technical, and popular publications, lectured in more than 60 countries, and appeared in hundreds of television productions.

Earle is the author of many books on the ocean, including Sea Change: A Message of the Oceans and, most recently, Ocean: An Illustrated Atlas, with Linda K. Glover.  Earle has led more than 60 expeditions and logged more than 6,000 hours underwater, including leading the first team of women aquanauts during the Tektite Project in 1970 and setting a record for solo diving to a depth of 1,000 meters (3,300 feet). Her research concerns marine ecosystems with special reference to exploration and the development and use of new technologies for access and effective operations in the deep sea and other remote environments.

Honors include winning 2009 TED Prize, the Netherlands Order of the Golden Ark, inclusion in the National Women’s Hall of Fame and the American Academy of Achievement, and medals from the Explorers Club, the Philadelphia Academy of Sciences, the Lindbergh Foundation, the National Wildlife Federation, Sigma Xi, Barnard College, the New England Aquarium, the Seattle Aquarium, the Society of Women Geographers, and the National Parks Conservation Association.

“In the last 25 years, I haven’t been diving anywhere, even 2 miles under the sea, without seeing some form of our trash, a lot of it plastic” Sylvia Earle


What is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch?

It is an area in the North Pacific Ocean where vast amounts of marine litter is caught up in oceanic currents. Much of this litter is microscopic pieces of plastic. These currents accumulate waste floating in the ocean.

The area is an oceanic desert, filled with tiny phytoplankton but few big fish or mammals. Due to its lack of large fish and gentle breezes, fishermen and sailors rarely travel through. A report by the United Nations Environment Programme (2006) stated that in the Central Pacific, there are up to 6 pounds of marine litter to every pound of plankton.


A gyre is a slowly moving spiral of oceanic currents created by a high-pressure system of air currents.This forms a place for ocean debris to collect. Plastic is then carried into stable circular currents, or gyres like ocean ring-roads. There are 5 main gyres, along with several smaller gyres in Alaska and Antarctica:

  • North Pacific Ocean
  • South Pacific Ocean
  • North Atlantic Ocean
  • South Atlantic Ocean
  • Indian Ocean



Give Me Tap

Edwin Broni-Mensah – Founder of GiveMeTap

A Simple Idea. Leading to Great Changes. 70% of profits from Give Me Tap are used to fund independent water projects in regions where it’s needed most, including Namibia.

The concept of GiveMeTap was dreamt up by Edwin-Broni-Mensah in 2010 and it has since won him an award as “most outstanding black graduate in Britain 2010”. The idea is you buy a reusable bottle (£7) made from recycled aluminium from the Give Me Tap website and take it into any cafe or restaurant which has signed up as a “provider” of the scheme.

The bottle is then filled with tap water for free, which helps reduce the plastic wastage in landfill sites and saves you money. 70% of the cost of each bottle is then channeled back into independent water projects helping communities across Africa to install clean water pumps. Through their ‘Giving Back’ strategy GiveMeTap give 70% of the price of the bottle sales are used to fund independent water projects.
Water For Us. Water For Everyone

GiveMeTap is not just about fewer bottles, less recycling and money savings, it’s about understanding why those things are a problem today, and finding innovative and sustainable solutions. We envision a future where around every corner there is access to the gift of fresh water. GiveMeTap are always looking for ways to make drinking water hassle-free, fast, and cheap when you need it most: on-the-go.


Professor Richard Thompson, School of Marine Science and Engineering, Plymouth University

Professor Richard Thompson’s research focuses on three main topics (1) the effects of plastic debris in the marine environment (2) the ecology and conservation of shallow water habitats and (3) habitat modification to enhance biodiversity of marine engineering such as coastal defences and off-shore renewable energy devices.

He has been working on the effects of plastic in the marine environment for over a decade. In 2004 his group showed that waters around the north-east Atlantic had become contaminated by microscopic fragments of plastic or ‘microplastic’ and that the abundance of this material had increased significantly over the last 40 years.

These microplastic fragments some of which were smaller than the diameter of a human hair appear to have formed by the breakdown of everyday items such as plastic bags, bottles, rope and materials used in packaging. His group is at the forefront of research to establish the environmental consequences of this newly described form of debris.

“Part of the solution is to design products for end of life recyclability, so that we have closed loop recycling. Then society will put a higher value on what we currently see as valueless waste.” Professor Richard Thompson

Further reading

Mediterranean facing plastic crisis, Geographical Magazine, April 2015

North Atlantic plastic accumulation and the flow of international scrap material, Geography Directions, March 2010