Cleaning Up the Oceanic Garbage Patches

Factors Affecting Clean Up


    Cleaning up of the oceanic garbage patches will involve a great deal of time and expense. It is challenging to find both cost-effective and environmentally safe methods to remove plastic waste from the oceans. Due to natural shifts in oceanic currents, plastic debris shifts around as well. This increases the time and cost involved in locating the debris. Shifts in oceanic currents also mean that an area that has been cleaned can become polluted with plastic again as the debris drifts. [1,2] 

    Plastic from the garbage patches can’t simply be scooped up in nets due to environmental considerations. Plankton, sea snails, sea turtles, and all kinds of other marine life inhabit the garbage patches. [1] Smaller forms of marine life such as plankton or jelly fish often die immediately once they are removed from the ocean. Because of this, it isn’t possible to simply catch the plastic and release the marine life. [2] 

Preventing the Accumulation of Plastic

Individual-Level Solutions

 There are many steps people can take to reduce the amount of plastic garbage they accumulate. These include: 

  • Don’t take plastic bags from the store. Bring your own bags instead.
  • Opt for food products that are sold in recyclable containers: the glass jar of peanut butter, the paper milk carton, or the aluminum can of soda.
  • Use biodegradable trash and pet waste bags instead of plastic. Companies like Bio Bags sell waste bags manufactured from a corn-based material that is biodegradable.
  • When buying chips or other snack foods, consider Sun Chips, which are packaged in plant-based compostable bags that biodegrade in 14 weeks.
  • Use cloth diapers or biodegradable plastic diapers instead of plastic.
  • Bring a stainless steel drink holder with you next time you go to Starbucks or other coffee shops.
  • Pack your lunch in Tupperware containers or other reusable containers instead of wrapping your food in plastic.
  • Opt for cloth napkins and kitchen towels instead of plastic-wrapped paper towels.
  • Recycle! Rinse out recyclable glass, plastic, aluminum, and paper products and recycle them instead of throwing them out with your trash. [3]  Visit  Recycle City [https://www.epa.gov/recyclecity/] to learn more about how recycling works.


Community-Level Solutions

Local River Clean-up 

    Local communities can organize river clean ups to remove plastic and other garbage from rivers. Since almost all rivers flow into oceans, this helps prevent the accumulation of garbage that ends up in the ocean. [4] 

    In the fall of 2010 the National Park Service, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Keep Yankton Beautiful collaborated on a local clean-up project in Yankton, South Dakota. The community implemented a river clean up event as part of a larger initiative to help kids increase the amount of physical activity they get outside. [4] This is a great example of how communities can come together to clean up its rivers.  

    On a larger scale, the Ocean Conservancy has been organizing international coastal ocean clean-up effort since 1965. Once a year, hundreds of thousands of volunteers from countries around the world remove trash from their waterways and catalog the types of pollution they find. In 2009, volunteers picked up 10,239,538 items weighing approximately 7,446,130 pounds. [5] Most of the debris consisted of single use, disposable items such as beverage bottles, plastic bags, and plastic eating utensils. More information about getting involved with the Ocean Conservancy is available at www.oceanconservancy.org/cleanup.


  Spotlight on the Ocean Conservancy’s 2009 International Coastal Clean-up in Mexico [5]



    Legislation to control plastic is an important way to prevent further accumulation of plastic in the oceans.  At the federal level, the Obama administration took steps to control oceanic pollution by forming the Interagency Ocean Task Policy Task Force in 2009. The task force is charged with developing recommendations and implementation strategies to protect and restore the health of ocean, coastal, and Great Lakes ecosystems and resources. [6] 

    A number of state legislatures have sponsored bills to charge a small fee (around 5 cents) per single use plastic bag or require large retailers to implement plastic bag recycling programs. [7] Many of these types of bills have failed or died in committee, as was the case in recent years in Arizona, California, Connecticut, Maryland, Maine, and Oregon. [7] Despite the mixed success of proposed legislation to control the accumulation of plastic waste, some states have been able to successfully pass laws. Some of these bills include: [7]



Bill Number

Year Passed





Prohibits the sale of a plastic product labeled as “compostable” or “marine degradable” unless it meets ASTM standard specifications or a standard adopted by the department


HB 15


Requires stores over 7,000 square feet or with 3 or more locations in the State of Delaware to establish a recycling program; label bags for return for recycling; provide recycle bins; and provide reusable bags

District of Columbia




Imposes a 5-cent bag tax and mandatory recyclable bags


HB 310


Expands statewide recycling programs

New Hampshire

HCR 17


Encourages use of reusable bags


Legislation efforts have been more successful at the county and city level. Some recently passed laws to limit accumulation of plastic waste include: [7]






Bill Number

Year Passed




SB 156


Bans plastic bags; until ban implementation stores must charge $.10 per bag. Those bags must have 40% recycled material.





Bans most plastic shopping bags



Ordinance SO2008-2045


Requires certain retailers to establish plastic bag recycling programs; provide recycling bins; provide reusable bags for sale

New Jersey

Red Bank

Ordinance 2008-27


Mandates recycling of plastic bags; stores that offer plastic checkout bags must provide bins for plastic bag recycling

New York

New York City

Local Law No. 1


Requires retail and large stores to collect and recycle plastic bags



Keep Austin Beautiful


Creates voluntary plastic bag use reduction and recycling program



Ordinance 2009-911-E


Imposes a plastic bag ban that is voluntary through 2010 and becomes mandatory in January 2011; businesses can only provide recyclable paper bags, reusable bags, or biodegradable bags



Ordinance 09-00102


Requires residents to recycle plastic bags



    There is a growing body of research on the Pacific garbage patch. Two innovative research initiatives are being conducted by Project Kaisei and Duke University.


Project Kaisei 

    Project Kaisei was co-founded by three ocean lovers and activists in 2008 with a mission of cleaning up the marine debris in the oceanic garbage patches. [1] Kaisei, which roughly means “ocean planet” in Japanese, soon developed into a global collaboration of science, industry, technology, and policy. Project Kaisei works to bring about solutions to the way humans handle waste in their daily lives, so that less garbage will find its way to the sea. [9] 

    The Project Kaisei team began studying the contents of the Pacific garbage patch in 2009, with the hope of eventually being able to recycle the plastic or turn it into fuel. [8] Project Kaisei teamed up with the University of California’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography in August 2009 for its first exploration of the Pacific garbage patch. [8] The team gathered marine debris samples and analyzed them over an area of 3,500 miles. Small plastic debris was found in every single surface sample net. [9] 

    As part of the 2009 expedition, a variety of passive trash collection techniques were tested in order to identify the best methods for implementing larger scale cleanup of the plastic waste. [10] Based on the lessons learned from the 2009 expedition, Project Kaisei tested some trash retrieval methods that can be used with low energy input and low impacts on marine life during a second expedition in the summer of 2010. 

    Project Kaisei also collaborates with renewable energy companies such as Covanta Energy to assess and promote sustainable methods of marine debris conversion into fuel. [11] As part of this initiative, Project Kaisei collects debris from the ocean and Covanta Energy uses the debris to test a new waste-to-fuel technology. The two organizations have set a goal to convert 50 tons of marine debris into renewable fuel each year. [12]


Duke University

With support from Ocean Conservancy and The Coca-Cola Company, researchers at Duke University in North Carolina are compiling all current research on the Pacific Garbage Patch and other garbage patches. In addition to making a full assessment of the research collected to date, the researchers are evaluating costs and the degree of effectiveness of cleanup options. [1]



     A number of organizations organize outreach events to teach people about the garbage patches and brainstorm solutions to this global pollution crisis. [12] Many environmental activists have created blogs and websites to inform the general public about the scope and impact of oceanic garbage patches. [13, 14] Project Kaisei has large-scale plans to share their research findings in a variety of forums:

  • Generate Public Service Announcements (PSAs) for reporting on marine debris
  • Develop exhibits and educational content for aquariums and museums
  • Provide in-person and online educational presentations to school-aged audiences
  • Organize school competitions that focus on identifying, collecting, and creatively re-using marine debris or local plastic waste
  • Organize conferences with trade, science, and environmental associations to showcase scientific findings on marine debris
  • Prepare white papers on marine debris and research-based solutions to support public policy discussions [15]


A Call to Action

Public awareness of the oceanic garbage patches has grown a lot in recent years. Individuals can get involved in many ways to prevent the further accumulation of plastic in the oceans, from re-using and recycling plastic bags to volunteering with organizations dedicated to cleaning up the oceans. Research and legislation efforts are also underway to develop community-level solutions to this pollution problem. We hope this web page has introduced you to some of the different ways you can get involved to help stop plastic from ending up in waterways.





Works Cited

1.       Ocean Conservancy. (2010). The Pacific Garbage Patch: Myth & Realities. Retrieved October 11, 2010 from https://www.oceanconservancy.org/site/News2?news_iv_ctrl=-1&abbr=press_&page=NewsArticle&id=14153

2.       Wheeler, D. (2009). Voyage to the Center of the Trash. Retrieved October 11, 2010 from https://www.trashvoyage.com/solutions.php

3.       Pierce County Community Newspaper Group. (2010). Eliminating my own great garbage patch. Retrieved October 11, 2010 from https://www.tacomaweekly.com/article/4933

4.       Marlette, S. (2010). ‘Let’s Get Outside’ Kicks Off in Yankton. Retrieved October 11, 2010 from https://www.yankton.net/articles/2010/10/08/community/doc4cae775a7e2cf738201864.txt

5.       Ocean Conservancy. (2010). Trash Travels: From Our Hands to the Sea, Around the Globe, and Through Time. Retrieved November 11, 2010 from https://www.oceanconservancy.org/site/DocServer/icc2010report_regional_Mex.pdf?docID=6004

6.       The White House Council of Environmental Quality. (2009). The Interim Report of the Interagency Ocean Policy Task Force. Retrieved November 11, 2010 from https://www.whitehouse.gov/assets/documents/09_17_09_Interim_Report_of_Task_Force_FINAL2.pdf

7.       Spectrum Bags, Inc. (2008). Laws & Regulations – United States. Retrieved November 11, 2010 from https://www.spectrumbags.com/laws_regulations_US.html

8.       Mother Nature Network. (2010). What Is the Great Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch? Retrieved October 11, 2010 from https://www.mnn.com/earth-matters/translating-uncle-sam/stories/what-is-the-great-pacific-ocean-garbage-patch

9.       Project Kaisei. (2010). Project Kaisei. Retrieved October 11, 2010 from https://www.projectkaisei.org/

10.   Project Kaisei. (2010). Ocean Research and Cleanup Expeditions. Retrieved November 11, 2010 from https://www.projectkaisei.org/clean_up_expeditions.html

11.   Project Kaisei. (2010). The Solution. Retrieved November 11, 2010 from https://www.projectkaisei.org/Places_watch_solution_dw.html

12.   WTOP Radio. (2010). Groups hope to turn floating ocean trash into fuel. Retrieved November 11, 2010 from https://www.wtop.com/?nid=25&sid=2059705

13.   Duke University Marine Lab. (2010). Viewing Party – TEDx Great Pacific Garbage Patch Conference. Retrieved November 11, 2010 from https://www.nicholas.duke.edu/marinelab/about/news/tedx-viewing-party

14.   TenBruggencate, J. (2010). Oceanic Garbage Patches may number five. Retrieved November 11, 2010 from https://raisingislands.blogspot.com/2010/08/oceanic-garbage-patches-may-number-five.html

15.   Earthsky. (2010). Kara Lavendar Law: Ocean garbage patch in Atlantic, too. Retrieved November 11, 2010 from https://earthsky.org/water/kara-lavender-law-ocean-garbage-patch-in-atlantic-too

16.   Project Kaisei. (2010). Ocean Recovery Education & Outreach. Retrieved November 11, 2010 from https://www.projectkaisei.org/education_outreach.html