Human-made garbage floating in the ocean.

When I was in my early twenties, I spent a semester on a NOLS expedition in Kenya. One day, as we walked the tide pools along the Indian Ocean, we came across a sloshing pool filled with flotsam and jetsam and other human-made debris. The plastic bits, like some strange breed of sea glass, had been tumbled and smoothed by the tides. Some items were recognizable – a flip flop sandal, a baby’s pacifier – others were rounded into colorful, amorphous blobs. The splashing soup was at the same time vibrant and grotesque.

The Great Garbage Patch

Just two years later, in 1997, a similar patch of ocean-dwelling waste was discovered in the middle of the Pacific Ocean: the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. This “Plastic Vortex” in the Pacific, like others of its kind in each of the worlds’ oceans, is the result of plastic waste being carried by open water currents. Ocean currents are impacted by wind, tides, and temperature differentials. Huge permanent patterns of rotating currents – or gyres – exist around the planet, carrying people, goods, and unfortunately, discarded plastics.

Most of the plastics found in the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre originate from land activities in Asia and North America. Some are dumped from ocean vessels. By mass, much of the waste is ghost nets, plastic fishing nets that are accidentally or intentionally abandoned. But by the numbers, it’s microplastics that win the contest, with an estimated 1.8 trillion pieces in the Pacific Garbage Patch.

We all know plastics large and small are harmful to marine life and oceanic ecosystems and I’m reluctant to preach “doom and gloom” here on this blog. So, let’s just say it’s bad. And the data is out there if you want to see it.

Solutions to the Garbage Patch

Instead, let’s talk solutions. Probably the most well known solution to date is the brainchild of 23-year old inventor and entrepreneur, Boyan Slat, who founded the nonprofit The Ocean Cleanup. The Ocean Cleanup deploys a giant, floating U-shaped barrier system that captures the plastic waste and hauls it ashore for recycling. They also are testing debris filtration systems to collect waste at river mouths. Check out their website for images, statistics, and to learn about how computer modeling helps them target “plastic hotspots.”

Of course, this important cleanup only works to solve ocean litter, not address the root problem which is plastic production (and single-use plastic in particular). Many people care about plastic pollution but moving from knowledge and caring to action is not always easy or a natural next step.

Sociology’s Role

Interestingly, while the US released a “US Actions to Address Plastic Pollution” statement, sociologists have drilled down on specific strategies that impact human behavior. According to the UN-based One Planet Network the following approaches to encouraging pro-environmental behaviors can be effective:

  • Customizing messaging to specific genders, ages, etc.
  • Using positive social norms and role models
  • Being specific about tangible actions people can take
  • Asking people to make commitments or pledges
  • Tapping into positive emotions like pride or hope
  • Showing people that their choices matter

Check out their full analysis with sample anti-plastic pollution campaigns at So, #Skipthestraw and go on a “plastic bag diet” to play a role in addressing the root of the issue. And let’s not forget, we can talk to legislators, too, about their role in reducing our reliance on plastics and the fossil fuel industry that creates them.

Learn more

  • Did you hear that scientists have discovered marine species like barnacles and anemones that normally inhabit coastal regions living on debris in the Pacific Garbage Patch? Find out more from NPR.
  • Teachers: Science Friday has developed a lesson plan for middle schoolers inviting them to channel their own inventor skills to solve the Plastic Vortex problem.
  • Check out this quick (less than 2 min) video from USA Today:


In Case You Missed It…

News from Nature Net Members​​

In an effort to provide MMSD students with more locally grown food in their school meals, Rooted launched a new student-grown produce project. With assistance from the Farm to School program, 2nd and 3rd graders from Mendota Community School and Schenk Elementary began growing romaine lettuce at school. Once all 350 heads were ready for harvest, they were served in the form of side salads at school! The mission of this project was to give students a more active role in growing their own food. Madison Parks and Friends of Cherokee Marsh accomplished a successful collaboration! This past month, Madison Parks was able to provide trail maps that were installed at six trail crossroads in Cherokee Marsh – North Unit. Within minutes of being installed, the maps were being used! In addition to this, boot brush stations were added by the kiosks in Cherokee Marsh Conservation Park to help decrease the spread of invasive plants. The Madison Children’s Museum Chicken Coop is getting a glow up! While their existing coop has provided a great experience for the well-loved birds of Madison, an expanded version is in the works which will include more space for roosting, climbing, and privacy. Better interfaces for human visitors to learn about these fun friends will also be installed. As the chickens have been temporarily relocated, check out their social media for updates.

More from Nature Net…

For Families: For Educators: Upcoming Events:
Nature Passport is out and ready for pickup! The theme of this year’s passport is “Birds of a Feather Flock Together”! Each site you visit offers the opportunity for you and your family to learn about a new bird species. If you would like to engage even further, check out our Facebook page for our “Bird of the Week” series! Registration is now open for the WAEE Midwest Environmental Education Conference taking place November 2-4 in La Crosse, WI! With the theme being To Hinukwaseja: Restoring Connections to the Land and Each Other, take advantage of the opportunity to hear from speakers, engage in workshops, and attend field trips! Learn more here. It’s not too late to register for some summer camps! While many kiddos have already kickstarted their nature-filled summer, there are still so many opportunities to keep your eye out for. Learn about which sites offer camps and which camps are still available here.

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