Support the war on floating waste

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 26 May, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 26 May, 2009, 12:00am

The Plastic Vortex is one of the great man-made environmental disasters, yet no one knew about it until 1997. 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. Its low density makes it invisible to satellites; fishermen avoid the area because there are no fish and only light winds for sails.

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

The gyre is in international waters 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 collect waste and map the vortex. The project plans to enlist local university students to help; this will be a valuable experience.

Researchers believe most of the waste originates from land. 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.

Cleaning up these gyres may not be the responsibility of any single nation or organisation. But we are all polluters; we are all responsible.

This is an edited version of the editorial which ran on May 23 in the Post