Spanning the nearly unthinkably vast expanse of the Pacific ocean, all across the 5,355 miles of ocean between the West Coast of the United States and the islands of Japan, swirl whirlpools of human waste. Familiarly known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, these massive colonies of plastics and other trash particles are actually comprised of two primary vortexes: the Western Garbage Patch, located off the coast of Japan, and the Eastern Garbage Patch, which swirls around in the waters between Hawaii and California. The two vortexes are linked by the North Pacific Subtropical Convergence Zone, where warm waters from the South Pacific join up with cooler waters coming from the Arctic. “The zone acts like a highway that moves debris from one patch to another,” describes National Geographic in their breakdown of the ecological nightmare building up at sea. And just how much debris is road tripping down this superhighway and accumulating in the Pacific Ocean? No one knows–but it’s estimated by the International Union for Conservation of Nature to be around 8 million tons at the very minimum. “The North Pacific Subtropical Gyre is too large for scientists to trawl. In addition, not all of the trash floats on the surface,” writes National Geographic. “Denser debris can sink centimeters or even several meters beneath the surface, making the vortex’s area nearly impossible to measure.” In fact, the ocean floor beneath the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is likely a massive trash heap in and of itself. What floats above is primarily made up of microplastics. Since plastics don’t biodegrade, they just break up into smaller and more insidious pieces. These microplastics become harder to see, count, and clean up the smaller they are. This is why the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is not a visible island on satellite imagery. Instead, “the microplastics of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch can simply make the water look like a cloudy soup. This soup is intermixed with larger items, such as fishing gear and shoes.”
Cleaning up our oceans will be no easy task. Plastics are more prevalent than ever, and thousands of miles of microplastic soup is an unprecedented mess. And it’s everywhere– microplastics are entering our water, soil, and air faster than we can come up with a contingency plan to get them out of our environment or even figure out what damage we are doing to ourselves in the process. A 2019 study calculated that the average U.S. resident “eats, drinks, and breathes in more than 74,000 microplastic particles every year,” potentially exposing us to harmful petrochemicals.
Coming up with a way to clean up our oceans is of utmost importance, and there are, fortunately, a number of scientists working on finding a solution. One of the most imagination-capturing ideas is an innovative design concept called the “8th Continent.” This massive, self-sustained floating station designed by Slovak architect Lenka Petráková collects ocean debris and breaks it down into recyclable materials. The station will be able to move around to best suit the needs of the “continent” and the movements of the ocean. The self-sufficient floating station will create its own energy via tidal energy technology and solar panels mounted on the roof of parts of the structure.
The 8th Continent has five key components which allow the station to address the urgent issue of ocean contamination in a complete self-sustaining model: The Barrier, which collects debris from the Pacifc Ocean while also harvesting tidal energy; The Collector, which sorts, breaks down, and stores the collected garbage; The Research and Education Centre, where the station’s inhabitants will be able to study and communicate their findings; The Greenhouses, where plants will be cultivated and water will be desalinated; and finally the Living Quarters that will house the 8th Continent’s inhabitants.
Speaking about her inspiration for creating the 8th Continent, Petráková told Euronews, “I realized how destroyed the oceans are and how many species are extinct, how much pollution is there, and that the parts that may have never seen a human being, feel the effects of our activities.” The groundbreaking and high minded concept took home the Jacques Rougerie foundation‘s 2020 Grand Prix Award for Architecture and Innovation.