Plastic waste: a continent adrift

Plastic waste on a beach

© Lisa H

Every year, almost 8 million tonnes of plastic, 80% of which come from the land, end up in the planet’s oceans.Ocean currents have agglomerated part of this plastic into huge masses of floating waste, or the famous “plastic continent” that was observed for the first time at the end of the 1990s.
The sailing boat of the “Expédition 7e Continent” NGO, captained by the explorer Patrick Deixonne, set off to discover these plastic expanses in an effort to raise awareness amongst citizens and decision-makers about the need to take action, at sea and above all, on land.

Patrick Deixonne ©Expédition 7e Continent

“When you row across the Atlantic, you have time to admire the landscape, and also to observe some rather strange objects…” When Patrick Deixonne, a member of the“Société des explorateurs”, set off on a new single-handed adventure in 2009, he came across gigantic masses of plastics drifting on the surface.

When did these vortexes, that exist in all the world’s oceans, start to form? No one knows exactly. They cannot be seen from space and were described for the first time by the American oceanographer, Charles Moore, in 1997. They are made up of about 250,000 tonnes of plastic debris from coastal and inland cities, from which they are conveyed to the ocean by river.

“It’s not a continent in terms of density”, explains Patrick Deixonne, “because it is more like a floating mass of fragmented plastic. But in terms of surface area, the North Pacific garbage patch is as big as Europe.”

When he returned to land, the seafarer founded “Expédition 7e Continent”, an organisation dedicated to the exploration of these zones that can only be seen from the deck of a ship, and to raising awareness amongst the general public. Since 2013, the Martinique-based organisation has been running expeditions that enable scientists to analyse ocean pollution by plastics on the spot.

© Expédition 7e Continent

Understand and inform before repairing

Patrick Deixonne and his crew have sailed to the North Atlantic, the Pacific and, in 2016, the Bay of Biscay, with the scientific support, at sea and on land, of institutions such as the French National Scientific Research Centre (CNRS) and the European Space Agency.

The seafarer claims that “We need to understand, before repairing. We need fundamental scientific research. What is the proportion of nanometric waste? How are the plastics distributed in the water column? How do the pollutants, bacteria and viruses move around? And what are their exact impacts on the marine environment? To answer all these questions, we need chemists, biologists, oceanographers and engineers.” In Patrick Deixonne’s opinion, drawing up a detailed map of these garbage patches by developing the capacities of satellite observation, is crucial to furthering our understanding.

Scientific knowledge is also decisive to raising awareness and mobilising the general public. “We need to convince the most important populations: economic and political decision-makers, obviously, but also the younger generation,” explains Patrick Deixonne.

The NGO organises educational campaigns and exhibitions in schools in France, and provides teachers with digital kits to teach children about the importance of the pollution of the oceans by plastic. Anyone can use the participative application developed by “Expédition 7e Continent” to document and locate uncontrolled accumulations of waste on land that could eventually reach rivers and then the sea, simply by taking a photo. A geolocalised alert is then sent to NGOs, companies or local authorities involved in the fight against pollution and in waste collection.

©Expédition 7e Continent

“The problem is at sea, but the solutions are on land”

This is the NGO’s motto. The collection of waste at sea on a massive scale will not solve this problem. The root cause is on land, in our behaviour as consumers, in our modes of industrial production and in the shortcomings of our processes to collect and process waste. Solutions must be implemented in our regions, our cities, our research institutes, and even by consumers and citizens, that can make a difference, before our waste even finds its way into the oceans. By way of example, “Expédition 7e Continent” and the Seine-Normandie Water Agency are working together to organise waste collection on the banks of the River Seine by pupils.

But the activist explorer also claims that we must “restore the value of plastic” by doing away with objects that are immediately disposable, and considering them as a true resource, an idea that demands better collection and sorting, and the development of the know-how required to recycle and reuse plastics.

To this end, “Expédition 7e Continent” has entered partnerships with a number of economic and industrial players, as well as plastics processing players. The latter can help to introduce effective solutions by developing bioplastics, or less varied plastics that are easier to recycle. Public authorities and environmental companies can also help “by investing in wastewater treatment plants that filter plastic micro- particles at the earliest possible stage”, adds the seafarer.

“We want to federate,” he concludes. “We must encourage and share our efforts. The technologies that will be deployed on an industrial scale in 10 years are being invented today, together.”

This article was published in the third issue of open_resource magazine : «The oceans, future of the blue planet»


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