Cleaning up the plastic in the ocean

Discarded plastic is piling up around the world and pooling in the ocean. Sharyn Alfonsi reports on the problem's deadly consequences for wildlife and what can be done to stop it

Take a look around, odds are you're surrounded by plastic. It's in our kitchens and in our bedrooms, it keeps our food fresh and our medicine safe. It is, in many ways, a miracle product, cheap to produce and virtually indestructible. Yet plastic's blessings are also a curse. That water bottle we use once and throw away will be with us for generations. There are campaigns to limit this plastic plague with bans on bags and straws and yet around the world, it continues to pile up, seeping into our rivers and streams and turning our oceans into a vast garbage dump. But one mop-haired young Dutchman has come up with a plan which he says will save our seas. His name is Boyan Slat, he has no formal training and his much-hyped, multi-million dollar device has made him something of a sensation. So we decided to see what all the fuss is about.

In an old naval base just outside San Francisco, engineers have spent months assembling a curious contraption, the brainchild of a driven 24 year-old Dutchman named Boyan Slat who dropped out of college to take center stage in a grand new venture.

Boyan Slat's ocean cleaning device

It's just 2000 feet of plastic piping, affixed to a 10-foot nylon screen, but Slat's lofty promise? That he can clean up the world's oceans.

His idea, as he lays out in this animation, is to tow his device out to an area known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the largest of five ocean whirlpools where much of the world's plastic accumulates. Despite what you may have heard, the garbage patch isn't an island and it's even difficult to see with the naked eye. It's a vast soup of floating debris, much of it tiny and below the surface.

If all goes according to plan, it's designed to use the wind, waves and water currents to skim the plastic, and corral it into an area where it can be removed, the first phase of an ambitious goal.

Boyan Slat: I hope to deploy say around 60 of these cleanup systems in the– in the next two to three years.

Sharyn Alfonsi: Sixty?

Boyan Slat: Yeah, which if we are successful with that, we should be able to remove half this Great Pacific Garbage Patch every five years.

Sharyn Alfonsi: And what about the other half?

Boyan Slat: So of course we don't stop after five years. The eventual goal of this cleanup is to get to a 90 percent reduction by the year 2040.

Sharyn Alfonsi: That's pretty aggressive?

Boyan Slat: Yeah.

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Boyan Slat with correspondent Sharyn Alfonsi

We first joined Slat in early September just before he was due to take his system out to sea. It's fitted with an array of gadgets to alert ships to its presence and to allow Slat and his team to monitor its progress in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Critics were already calling Slat's multimillion-dollar moonshot misguided.

Sharyn Alfonsi: There are a lot of people, as you know, who said, "Oh, this can't work, it won't work. It's a waste of time." Is there a part of you that is waiting for that "I told you so" moment?

Boyan Slat: I try not to lower myself to that level.

Sharyn Alfonsi: How's that going? (LAUGH)

Boyan Slat: Yeah, it's going all right. (LAUGH)

Slat came up with the idea as a teenager eight years ago on a diving trip off the coast of Greece. He was horrified by how much plastic he saw in the water and began collecting and analyzing it, and thinking of ways to clean it up.

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He laid out his vision to clean up the ocean at a TEDx Talk when he was 18. It went viral and a self-styled savior of the seas was born.

A slick Silicon Valley-style roadshow followed and Slat raised more than $30 million for his Ocean Cleanup, money he used to market his message and carry out research including an aerial survey to map the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. For the past five years, a team of engineers and scientists have been feverishly modelling, testing and revising Slat's idea.

Sharyn Alfonsi: But can technology solve a complicated problem like this?

Boyan Slat: I think it's pretty much the only thing that ever has. Thanks to human ingenuity and the human ability to work together, we do have a good shot at solving it.

Ingenuity, well maybe, but for many researchers it's downright fanciful, given that eight million tons of new plastic flows into the ocean every year, mostly from places that have no way of dealing with their trash. This is a fetid river in Manila. These are the shores of the Dominican Republic, but the problem is everywhere. This is Los Angeles last month. Over time, that plastic disperses, disintegrates into smaller pieces, and often gets eaten by fish, making its way up the food chain. Scientists still aren't sure what all that means for human health, but it's tightening its grip on marine animals and their habitat.

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Denise Hardesty with contributor Sharyn Alfonsi

Denise Hardesty: On the most remote, most pristine beach, in the middle of the ocean, on a little, tiny island, you will find trash there, too.

Denise Hardesty is a research scientist for the Australian government, and a leading authority on ocean plastics, who studies the problem around the world.

Denise Hardesty: I was even just in Antarctica a couple years ago, and even there we're finding the refuse of human society.

Sharyn Alfonsi: And what does that tell you?

Denise Hardesty: The ubiquity of plastics has really made its mark. You know, humans are really good at creating things, and we're really good at making things that last forever, clearly with plastics. And they are everywhere.

And that's been the case ever since plastic filled our homes in the 1950s.It was revolutionary. Television commercials billed it as the material of the future.

Susan Freinkel: I think the flood of plastic products in the years after World War II helped make the sort of American Dream possible for people.

Susan Freinkel is a San Francisco-based science writer whose book "Plastic: a Toxic Love Story" chronicles its history.

Susan Freinkel: It's kind of a technological miracle. I mean we've created this family of materials and figured out how to make them do pretty much anything that we want them to do, you know. You want it to be bendy, you want it to be transparent, you want it to be squishy? You want it to keep lettuce fresh for two weeks?

Sharyn Alfonsi: There are a lot of things that are made of plastic that we don't really think of as plastic. Where is plastic in our lives?

Susan Freinkel: How long have you got? I mean– (LAUGHTER) I did a thought experiment at the start of my book where I said, "Okay I'm gonna go a day without touching anything plastic." I thought it was a great idea until I walked into the bathroom and looked down at the plastic toilet seat, and my plastic toothbrush, and– so I said, "Okay I'm gonna spend the day writing down everything that's plastic." And by the day's end, I had this, you know, enormous list.

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Susan Freinkel

Sharyn Alfonsi: You look back at some of those old commercials, and it's really– you know, plastic is sold as something that is life-changing.

Susan Freinkel: Yes.

Sharyn Alfonsi: I mean, one of the things you see in these early ads is, "It will last forever."

Susan Freinkel: Yes, yes, it will last forever. And– unfortunately nobody really thought about what that meant.

There are really only three things you can do with plastic: put it in a landfill, burn it or recycle it. For decades, we thought recycling was the best answer, and we were told to throw our plastic, our paper and our aluminum cans into those familiar bins, to be picked up and carted away.

But according to Roland Geyer, an environmental scientist at the University of California, 90 percent of the plastic we used never made it into one of those bins at all. The other ten percent ended up in places like Recology, a recycling facility in northern California.

But you'll be surprised to hear what they and many other plants across the country have been doing with that plastic.

Roland Geyer: Until recently, in California, and probably much of the rest of the U.S., two thirds of the plastic went straight to China.

Sharyn Alfonsi: China. Why China?

Roland Geyer: China was accepting it and– it appears that China found a way to recycle it economically which– the– the U.S. has trouble with.

But last year, all that changed when China decided it didn't want to be the world's trash dump and shut the door to our plastic, leaving plants like Recology scrambling.

Sharyn Alfonsi: Where is all that recycling going now?

Roland Geyer: A lot of the plastic has been diverted to other countries like Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, Bangladesh, Thailand.

Sharyn Alfonsi: And of those countries, do we know that what we're sending to them is ultimately being recycled?

Roland Geyer: We hope it gets recycled.

Sharyn Alfonsi: We hope–

Roland Geyer: So we–

Sharyn Alfonsi: –but do we think?

Roland Geyer: We don't know. There's no real audit trail or anything like that so it's very difficult. And we know that a lot of plastic in Southeast Asia and other countries ends– ends up in open dumps.

Sharyn Alfonsi: This is discouraging, I think, to most people. Is the idea of recycling a myth?

Roland Geyer: I wouldn't call it a myth.

Sharyn Alfonsi: But it's not working.

Roland Geyer: For plastic, it's currently not working. So we need– we need to change it. We need to try different things.

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Correspondent Sharyn Alfonsi with Roland Geyer

There are campaigns across the country to ban straws and bags and try to reduce the amount of plastic we consume in the first place. But Susan Freinkel says it's simply not enough.

Susan Freinkel: I know all the problems about plastic, and if you open my kitchen, you know, cabinets, I've got a box of Ziploc baggies there because it's easier. So you know, we have to really wrestle ourselves with– what conveniences are we willing to give up, what kind of cons– consumption are we willing to sort of pull back on in order to change.

It is a big ask that would require a major overhaul in the way we live our lives, which may be why Boyan Slat and his big idea have been getting breathless coverage from the world's media, nearly all of whom seemed to turn up for the spectacle this September, as his system was towed under the Golden Gate Bridge, 1400 miles out to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

Boyan Slat: (LAUGHTER) It's five years of work and planning coming together, in one nice shot.

Boyan Slat: It's– it's overwhelming, exciting to see, going through the Golden Gate Bridge right now. It's a beautiful sight.

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Boyan Slat's ocean cleaning device

But since its deployment, its performance has been less enchanting. The plastic it has managed to corral ends up floating right back into the Pacific; a major design flaw Slat's trying to fix. But even if he does get the device working, scientists we spoke to have serious doubts about just how effective it can be: For one thing, its ten foot screen can only skim the ocean's surface, missing plastic that's much deeper. It could also end up trapping marine animals. But their biggest criticism is that it's pointless to spend millions of dollars trying to clean the middle of the ocean when more and more plastic is flowing into it from the coastlines. For researcher Denise Hardesty, Slat's device is certainly no silver bullet.

Sharyn Alfonsi: You're skeptical?

Denise Hardesty: I would love to be wrong.

Denise Hardesty: What I'm suggesting is that we use our resources wisely and focus on the items close to source, where we can clean them up.

Sharyn Alfonsi: Get it earlier?

Denise Hardesty: Get it early.

Sharyn Alfonsi: Get it closer to the shore?

Denise Hardesty: Get it close to shore. And if you really wanna focus it, be smart, have– have these big trash booms near the city centers. Because that's where we lose much more of it as well. And if you wanna be even smarter, stop it before it gets to the coast. You know, have some rubbish traps at rivers that feed out into the mouth of the ocean or further upstream, even.

Denise Hardesty: You know, I think the analogy that you hear often is, "If you've got a flood in the bathtub you're not gonna go just get a bunch of towels and try to keep cleaning it up, because it's still flooding over. You really need to turn off the tap, right?"

Sharyn Alfonsi: People that we spoke to said, "This is like trying to mop up a flooded bathroom but leaving the tap on."

Boyan Slat: I think humanity can do more than one thing at the same time. And– you know– if your bathroom is over-flooding, I'm still pretty happy that the mop exists. (LAUGH) Eventually we need to mop it up, right?

Plastic is everywhere. It's not unusual to see water bottles or grocery bags wash up on our beaches. But surely, if you travelled far enough away from people and cities you might be able to find a pristine beach, untouched by the plague of plastic, right? Well, we decided to find out. This summer, we travelled to Midway Atoll, a small group of islands "midway" between the U.S. and Asia. It's an American territory best known as the site of one of the most important battles of World War II. Today, the islands are closed to the public and home to a host of exotic animals including a charismatic sea bird called the Laysan albatross.

It's not easy to get to Midway, visiting involves a long permitting process and a chartered plane from Honolulu to the middle of the ocean.

After three hours, tiny slivers of light appear. A postage stamp in the vast Pacific.

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Albatross at Midway Atoll

As soon as we landed, it felt like we'd tumbled down the rabbit hole, into a curious wonderland. There are so many birds on the atoll we could only get here after dark, once they'd settled down for the night. As we made our way inland, the albatross chicks were oblivious to our caravan.

But by daybreak, it seemed like we'd found paradise, a tiny atoll surrounded by turquoise waters. Spinner dolphins patrol the coastline, endangered monk seals and giant sea turtles bask on its white beaches and of course the birds, so many birds. Over a million flapping, snapping, chattering Laysan albatross. The largest colony anywhere in the world.

Sharyn Alfonsi: And they just don't get out of the way

Amanda Boyd: Some are friendlier than others. Just like people.

Amanda Boyd works with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which oversees Midway. Everyday, its beaches are the scene of small acts of courage and clumsy crash and burns.

Once they're off, the Albatross can spend months at sea venturing thousands of miles, but returning to the same spot, and the same partner. A relationship that begins with more preening and chest pumping than a Miami nightclub.

Amanda Boyd: Oh my gosh, (LAUGH) to watch them dance. And as they're court-shipping and– when you find a pair that has actually been together and they're in sync, it's mesmerizing. They know each other's cues. It's like art. It's beautiful. It– it's inspiring to watch that.

Inspiring and loud. Honking lovers who are mostly ignored by their neighbors.

If any place should be unspoiled, it's Midway. The atoll is blissfully-isolated, off-limits to the public, and protected as part of one of the largest marine reserves in the world. So it was disturbing to see this.

Sharyn Alfonsi: What are those orange and yellow things?

Kevin O'Brien: Harbor booms.

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Correspondent Sharyn Alfonsi speaks with Kevin O'Brien

Kevin O'Brien oversees marine debris removal in the region for the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. Hundreds of tons of plastic have been retrieved from Midway in the last two decades. He showed us this year's pile, a veritable department store of discarded debris.

Kevin O'Brien: Here an intact CRT-TV screen here.

Sharyn Alfonsi: A whole screen.

Kevin O'Brien: Yeah. A whole screen–

Sharyn Alfonsi: Oh, look at this. So, you got enough things you can sort it, I guess.

Kevin O'Brien: Toothbrushes. We find an incredible amount of toothbrushes.

Sharyn Alfonsi: Tires.

Kevin O'Brien: Tires.

Kevin O'Brien: These can be dangerous because the young monk seals often will get curious and stick their snout into these eel cones.

Kevin O'Brien: Sometimes we'll find jugs full of chemicals with the lid still on which we have to treat pretty carefully. 'Cause we're never sure what– what's in it–

Sharyn Alfonsi: What's in there.

Kevin O'Brien: You know, the label's gone and…

Kevin O'Brien: We found car bumpers, motorcycle helmets, firemen's helmets, golf clubs, bowling balls.

All this trash ends up here because Midway sits at the edge of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a vast ocean whirlpool that draws in plastic from coastlines around the world.

Kevin O'Brien has been coming to Midway for a decade to survey and retrieve the debris. This is some of what he hauled away last month.

Kevin O'Brien: These nets are almost always made of some sort of plastic.

Sharyn Alfonsi: Uh-huh (AFFIRM).

Kevin O'Brien: Once they've been weathered in the environment, they can become very brittle.

Sharyn Alfonsi: Whoa.

Kevin O'Brien: And can easily break down into.

Sharyn Alfonsi: Little–

Kevin O'Brien: Microplastics.

Sharyn Alfonsi: Wow. So it looks like– so this looks like it's breaking apart and going away.

Kevin O'Brien: Right.

Sharyn Alfonsi: But it's not.

Kevin O'Brien: But it's not.

Long before plastics invaded Midway, U.S. forces repelled a Japanese assault in the Second World War. The Japanese had hoped to use islands as a bridge to the mainland. The American victory there in 1942 was a turning point. Today there's a monument to the Americans who died in the Battle of Midway and if you tour the islands you find relics everywhere, decaying artillery, derelict hangars, and beneath the water the rusting skeletons of old warships and of course, evidence of the new battle underway here.

Kevin O'Brien: We've been cleaning it up for years.

Sharyn Alfonsi: And it keeps coming.

Kevin O'Brien: And it keeps coming.

On a walk along one of the beaches we found a shoreline strewn with bottles and buoys, crates and canisters.

Sharyn Alfonsi: Is this a problem that's unique to these islands?

Kevin O'Brien: It's really not. There are beaches like this all over the world.

Kevin O'Brien: What is unique about Midway is that none of this plastic you see on the beaches here originates here. It's a problem that doesn't know borders.

Sharyn Alfonsi: I think a lot of people see this on their beaches. And it kinda looks like sea glass at first.

Kevin O'Brien: Yeah, it's– it looks like a mosaic. It's really colorful, actually kinda beautiful.

Sharyn Alfonsi: Yeah, but what is it really?

Kevin O'Brien: But a lot of this is really plastic. You know, and we can– we can sift it here and see what we come up with.

Kevin O'Brien: Little pieces of–

Sharyn Alfonsi: Sure. This is a bottle cap you can see. And what's the harm with this? Are fish eating this?

Kevin O'Brien: Yeah, and the smaller the piece of plastic and the smaller the animal that can consume it.

Sharyn Alfonsi: Do we know that they definitely have effects on fish?

Kevin O'Brien: We don't know that for certain. These plastics become a magnet essentially for toxic chemicals that are found in the environment, PCBs, pesticides, fire retardant chemicals.

Kevin O'Brien: And so the longer a piece of plastic stays in the environment, the more toxic it becomes.

Studies have found these microplastics in everything from supermarket seafood to drinking water, but scientists don't yet know what all that means for our health.

Kelly Goodale: When an adult comes in they'll make a couple of noises saying 'hey I'm back.'

But the effects on birds are easier to see. Kelly Goodale a U.S. Fish and wildlife biologist, took us on a ride around Midway to show us the impact all this plastic is having on them.

Kelly Goodale: So the adults have been coming back every few days to a couple of weeks to feed them.

Sharyn Alfonsi: What's happening right now?

Kelly Goodale: It's– it's regurgitating up more food. (LAUGH)

Dinner time here might make you lose your appetite.

BOTH: Oh. Ooo.

Kelly Goodale: Did you see that squid?

Sharyn Alfonsi: Yeah. (LAUGH) That was a whole squid.

Kelly Goodale: Yeah. (LAUGH)

Sharyn Alfonsi: That ought to keep you happy for a while.

For all the fish and squid they catch, the Albatross bring back plastic too, from that great Pacific Garbage Patch. Goodale showed us their nesting grounds.

Kelly Goodale: And so here, we do have a chick that did die. And as you can see, if you want to take a look at it.

Sharyn Alfonsi: Oh my goodness. (RUSTLING) Oh geez. Look at that.

Kelly Goodale: In here, you see there are so many pieces of plastic–

Sharyn Alfonsi: Plastic.

Kelly Goodale: Look at the amount of–

Sharyn Alfonsi: Plastic bag. And they eat the plastic bags why?

Kelly Goodale: You know, these can look like– food sources. It can look like a squid to them.

Sharyn Alfonsi: So they think this is food?

Kelly Goodale: They do think it's food. And, you know flying fish, they can lay eggs on– on floating debris. And so they will absolutely lay eggs on pieces of floating plastic. So if the adults are out there foraging, they pick up those eggs as well as pieces of plastic in there.

Sharyn Alfonsi: So it's the serving dish for the egg.

Kelly Goodale: Yes.

Sharyn Alfonsi: And of the birds that you end up looking at and dissecting, what percentage of them has– have plastics in them.

Kelly Goodale: Every single bird has plastic in it–

Sharyn Alfonsi: Every bird?

Kelly Goodale: Yes.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife scientists estimate the birds carry five tons of plastic back to Midway in their stomach every year, some of it Kelly Goodale collects and catalogues.

Kelly Goodale: –a comb.

Sharyn Alfonsi: –a comb? Geez.

Kelly Goodale: This one is probably one of the most disturbing ones.

Sharyn Alfonsi: Oh my goodness–

Kelly Goodale: You have bottle caps in here.

Sharyn Alfonsi: This looks like trash from a drugstore.

Kelly Goodale: It pretty much is.

Sharyn Alfonsi: Okay, all this was inside one bird?

Kelly Goodale: Yes.

Parts of this atoll can look like the site of a disaster and while Goodale says it's impossible to pinpoint the cause of death in every case, there's no question plastic can be fatal to these birds, either by filling up their stomachs and leaving little room for food or by tearing up their insides. As these photos from Fish and Wildlife show, that plastic, which scientists say can take a hundreds of years to decompose, is often the only thing left after the birds have gone.

Kevin O'Brien: Everyone, no matter where you live, has a role in this problem. Even someone in South Dakota, for instance, who has a river near their home and doesn't dispose of their plastic bottle appropriately might be contributing to this problem.

Sharyn Alfonsi: All the way out here?

Kevin O'Brien: All waterways lead to the ocean. And once this stuff gets into the ocean, the ocean currents can take it anywhere.

Anywhere and everywhere, it's hard to find a place not plagued by plastic. Just then we got a reminder of what else is at stake as an endangered monk seal paddled by.

Sharyn Alfonsi: What's this guy doing, you think? Is he coming in to eat or is he gonna–

Kevin O'Brien: He's coming in, he's checking it out. These are the locals.

Kevin O'Brien: And whether or not you care about all of these incredible species that live up here in this very remote place, it does necessarily matter. Because there are so many other things that rely on the ocean. People rely on the ocean for their livelihood. Fishermen. People rely on the ocean for recreation, tourism. And right here, we have an indicator of the health of our ocean.

Sharyn Alfonsi: You say this is an indicator. What does it tell you?

Kevin O'Brien: It tells us that the scale of the problem is massive and it's global.

Produced by Michael H. Gavshon and David M. Levine. Associate producer, Jacqueline Kalil.

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