War on floating waste deserves our support

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 23 May, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 23 May, 2009, 12:00am

The so-called Plastic Vortex is one of today's great man-made environmental disasters, yet no one knew about it until 1997. The scale of the pollution is simply mind-boggling. Plastic waste, carried and trapped by currents in the North Pacific Ocean, accumulates over years and forms a floating patch 1,000 times the size of Hong Kong. Despite its size, it escaped detection for years. Its low density makes it invisible to satellites; fishermen avoid the area because there are no fish and only light winds for sails. So it was discovered only by accident little more than a decade ago.

Cleaning it up will require co-operation among nations; an American environmental group is making a start, and Hong Kong students have an opportunity to help out. This is an educational, environmental and scientific project that deserves support from everyone, from governments to ordinary citizens around the world.

One reason the gyre has been allowed to fester is that it is located in international waters and is away from any human habitat. This explains why no one felt any urgency to clean it up - until now. But the longer it accumulates, the greater a threat it will pose to surrounding seas. Some of the estimated 4 million tonnes of plastic waste may be turned into diesel and other beneficial uses. Scientists with the US-based cleanup, Project Kaisei, will also test new technology to collect waste and map the vortex. The project plans to enlist local university students to help; this will be a valuable learning experience.

There are a few other, similar gyres, but the one in the North Pacific is the largest. Researchers believe most of the waste originates from land rather than from people on boats. So unless people become more alert and responsible in the way they handle rubbish, cleaning up some of the plastic waste now will not prevent further accumulation in the future.

As nations frantically prepare for final negotiations in December for a successor climate treaty to the Kyoto Protocol, people around the world need to become more aware of their responsibility as global citizens. The coming months may be a make-or-break time that will determine the future of the Earth for our children. Projects such as Kaisei help raise awareness and mobilise action. Cleaning up these gyres may not be the responsibility of any single nation or organisation. But we are all polluters; we are all responsible.