Scientists, sailors, journalists and government officials set sail from San Francisco Bay yesterday to start a study of the planet's largest known floating garbage dump, about 1,000 miles north of Hawaii.
The goal of the monthlong mission, dubbed Project Kaisei after the 151-foot brigantine that was bought from Japanese sailors in 1991, is to chart the so-called Great Pacific Garbage Patch and learn about its mysterious vortex of discarded plastic and assess what might be done about it.
The venture is no working vacation for environmental advocates. Project Kaisei is at its core a commercial endeavor, funded in part by international recycling companies that see opportunity in a sea of debris thought to be twice the size of Texas.
In addition to funding from individual donors, Project Kaisei is backed by the Bureau of International Recycling, whose membership counts 77 companies from Austria, China, Cuba and Canada, to name just a few of the nations represented. Deutsche Bank AG is also a key funder.
Mary Crowley, co-founder of the project, said examining the dump's potential as recycled material is just as important as studying the decomposed and decomposing plastic, which largely originated in California and Japan before being trapped by currents of the North Pacific Gyre.
"The missing link is how can you capture the plastic, since it's spread out over such a large area," Crowley said from the ship's deck here several days before its departure. "The key realization here is that the plastics might have a value, a recycled value, which is a very exciting deal."
The alliance between a group of activists who want to see the trash heap cleared and the corporate recycling world is no accident. Doug Woodring, a technology entrepreneur and former Merrill Lynch financier turned co-founder of Project Kaisei, said the marriage of commercial interests and environmental is key to the research mission's success. In other words, it is not enough to argue for erasing a strange maze of trash glimpsed over the years by a few unlucky souls.
"Anything that we're promoting is going to come back to expanded recycling programs," Woodring said. "If we're right, everyone who's in the recycling business will benefit."
A black hole in the Pacific
A second ship launched from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego will aid the Kaisei over the next 30 days and focus on science. The 170-foot New Horizon, funded by a $600,000 grant from the University of California, left last week with a crew of 20 graduate students looking to measure the size of the patch and its effects on wildlife.
Both vessels intend to produce hard data and an eventual white paper on what is still a largely unexplored phenomenon. The crews will look at how decomposing plastic over the last few decades has mixed with phytoplankton and zooplankton and whether netting techniques might be used to clean it up.
The problem, Crowley said, is that much of the plastic has already broken down in a soupy mix that tends to move around as ocean currents and storms produce swells and wind over the course of a given year. Ultraviolet rays break the plastic into molecular strains that are impossible to detect with the naked eye or satellites.
Cleaning up the bigger piles of trash, which float in random clumps over long distances above and beneath the surface, is possible but may not solve the core issue. And sweeping thousands of miles of ocean for molecular litter would be expensive and possibly unrealistic.
So the focus may have to turn to clearing only the more recent accumulation, in the last three or four years, rather than the last 30, Crowley said.