The Story of the World's Largest Floating Plastic Island (and What to Do With It)

Environmental issues urgency and increasing temperatures on the planet are nothing new. There are many factors contributing to environmental degradation. However, two can be viewed as representative of critical points in the current world system: plastic and waste disposal, better known as garbage.

The environmental crisis cannot be attributed solely to these two examples. They are used here as examples to mobilize issues involving multiple agents, materials, and diverse methods. These issues lead to devastating consequences, increasingly irreversible.

Plastic has contributed to modernity, and most of the world's objects use it. Obviously, there are problems with the material. Derived from oil, its production depends on the extraction of ancient and natural resources, constantly growing. The result is seen in waste disposal. The discarded volume does not degrade at the same rate since organic matter took millions of years to become petroleum. Additionally, some of the material's chemical components are harmful to the planet's living beings' health.

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Museum of Plastic (structure detail). © Imagen Subliminal (Miguel de Guzmán + Rocío Romero)

A portion of this material is destined for landfills, and some end up in the oceans, which is no surprise. Debris dumped in the oceans is at the mercy of currents and can get trapped in vortexes or marine revolutions. One of the examples - the largest of the five - is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP). There is a convergence zone of currents between Asia and North America. The flow of water along with the wind traps floating debris in the relatively stable center of this zone.

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Map of the North Pacific subtropical convergence zone. Image by NOAA, via Wikipedia. Public domain

The area of the GPGP is approximately three times that of France. However, it is not regular, and due to water movement, it has no defined contour, meaning its precise area and location can change. Usually, the GPGP is between the Hawaiian archipelago and the California coast. Although immense, the visualization is not straightforward, as plastic debris subject to weathering breaks into smaller and smaller pieces, the microplastics, which do not imply turbid water or large floating objects, but a kind of watery soup. For this reason, satellite images do not precisely identify the area, which makes the problem invisible.

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Modeled map of waste concentration in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. © L. Lebreton et. al.

Although microplastics are a small percentage of the total weight of the waste, the area they occupy is the largest concerning larger debris, and that means not only are animals ingesting these microplastics but also they return to the food chain ending in humans. In other words, the produced garbage is ingested back. It is not just about slowly ending marine life, but also about human life.

Plastic is the predominant element of GPGP waste. It is possible to find objects from decades ago, in an astonishing state of preservation, which proves the long-term durability of the material. Nautical objects are also prevalent, such as fishing nets, lines, and ropes detached from their boats. This is contrary to what one would imagine when thinking about a "marine landfill". Fishing nets are known to be the cause of death for large animals, so the collection of this debris is urgent.

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Debris accumulated on the beach. © Justin Dolske

There are initiatives to clean up the GPGP, such as The Ocean Cleanup group, which conducted a detailed mapping of the area and is currently implementing a large-capacity marine collection system. However, waste collection is complex, as it must be done in a way that does not harm existing marine life in the area. In addition, currents carry waste from one place to another throughout the year, and the size of the objects also matters. How to collect the smallest and most scattered elements, which are the majority, without damaging local fauna and flora?

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Rejects of Glass & Plastics Technology (textura). © Courtesy of Development Inc.

Retaining debris is more likely to occur when it is caught before it reaches the oceans, either through monitoring river dumping or through proper and conscious disposal, as well as by reducing plastic use or developing biodegradable materials. Although cleaning up the GPGP is difficult, there are numerous attempts to control, reduce or recycle plastic on land. If this material is an example of environmental pollution, it can also be an example of reuse or recycling, even as a constructive system. When it comes to recycling, the objects are already in the cities, in urban or private furniture. The reuse treatment of this material can inspire the same thinking regarding other equally polluting materials.

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Affordable Housing. © Courtesy of Othalo

A recent article published in npj Materials Degradation shows that two species of fungi are capable of degrading some types of plastic that had undergone temperature pre-treatment, UV rays or Fenton reagent. As a result of this degradation process, plastic decomposition is accelerated, and biomass is generated, which can be used as a renewable energy source. If certain fungi accelerate plastic degradation through more ecologically responsible sources, and considering that plastic collected in the GPGP was already exposed to light and heat, what would be the possibilities of projects that could apply recycling initiatives to existing plastic?

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Print Your City. Image © Stefanos Tsakiris

There are many positive initiatives, and such discoveries need sufficient support to become actions with relevant scope. It is not just about recycling, but about material decomposition and reduction. At this point, waste disposal and the necessary infrastructure for it should also respond to the urgent of the present. What the article in npj Materials Degradation shows is that through attention to the small beings that precede humanity - and that will probably succeed it - it is possible to invent materials, constructions, and solutions to live together. After all, tentacular thinking arises again.

This article is part of the ArchDaily Topics: Water in Architecture, proudly presented by Hansgrohe.

“Water is life and our passion. And water conservation is climate protection. We at Hansgrohe are committed to making a difference in how water is considered in Architecture, with products that save water while maintaining the same showering experience.”

Every month we explore a topic in-depth through articles, interviews, news, and architecture projects. We invite you to learn more about our ArchDaily Topics. And, as always, at ArchDaily we welcome the contributions of our readers; if you want to submit an article or project, contact us.

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Cite: Tourinho, Helena. "The Story of the World's Largest Floating Plastic Island (and What to Do With It)" [A história da maior ilha de plástico flutuante do mundo (e o que fazer com ela)] 23 May 2023. ArchDaily. (Trans. Simões, Diogo) Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

Screenshot of a CBS News report. Image © CBS News, used under Fair Use terms.


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