A young entrepreneur’s quest to clean up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch

What can be done about a swirling mass of plastic in the ocean?

Today's expression: Take something in stride
Explore more: Lesson #135
March 7, 2019:

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a large area in the ocean between California and Hawaii where almost 2 trillion tiny pieces of discarded plastic have accumulated and have not escaped, thanks to ocean currents and winds. A young Dutch entrepreneur invented a contraption to clean up the garbage, but the first tests of the device were unsuccessful. Meanwhile, other scientists wonder if the attempt to clean up the area could do more harm than good. Plus, learn what it means to take something in stride.

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What can be done about a swirling mass of plastic in the ocean, called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch? Today we’ll talk about one young entrepreneur’s quest to collect the biggest pieces and haul them back to land

Hello once again, and welcome to another edition of Plain English, the perfect podcast for practicing English through current events. I’m Jeff, the producer is JR, and this is episode number 135 for Thursday, March 7, 2019. As always, a full, word-for-word transcript is available on the web site, at PlainEnglish.com/135. And that transcript includes instant translations from English to Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, Japanese, Chinese and French.

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Cleaning up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch

It’s called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and it has been the object of fascination in the media and in environmental circles lately, in large part due to the efforts of a young Dutch entrepreneur, Boyan Slat. More on him in a minute. First, let’s talk about what the Garbage Patch is and what it isn’t.

It’s a zone in the Pacific Ocean between Hawaii and California where plastic waste has accumulated and where it swirls around due to ocean currents. The area is about twice the size of the US state of Texas, and it has plastic from all kinds of sources—mostly discarded fishing nets, but also consumer plastics like bottles, tennis shoes, toothbrushes, toys, and things like that. Because of the way the winds and the ocean currents work, the plastics are brought to this area from Asia and North America, and they just swirl around out there, around and around, not washing back to shore.

Due to its name, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, people think it’s a big mountain of solid plastics, but that’s not really the case. By the time most plastics reach that area, they’ve been broken down into much smaller pieces, called microplastics. These are less than five millimeters in length, so most of what’s actually out there is not visible to the naked eye. A recent study estimated that there are 79,000 tons of plastic in the Garbage Patch, and 1.8 trillion little pieces. And much of the plastic is not floating on the surface; it’s suspended between the surface and about 30 feet down. One scientist aptly described this as “the smog of the sea.” The smog of the sea: that’s a good analogy.

Still, there was enough out there for Charles Moore to see. He discovered the patch when sailing his yacht between Hawaii and California. The patch has been mostly the preserve of environmentalists and conservationists, but hadn’t really caught the public’s attention until the last few years. In 2012, an eighteen year old from the Netherlands, Boylan Slat, gave a Ted Talk about the topic. In his Ted Talk, he described an idea he had while SCUBA diving in Greece: instead of going out and trying to collect all the plastic, why not build a contraption that stands relatively still, and let the ocean currents bring the plastic to us, and trap it as it goes by?

The video went viral, and pretty soon Slat had $2 million in donations from over one hundred sixty nations within just a few months. He dropped out of college and threw himself into his idea. Late last year, by then twenty-three years old, Slat’s contraption set sail from San Francisco. He named it “Wilson.” It was a two-thousand foot plastic boom, which would be suspended out in the ocean by four huge anchors. Beneath the boom was a skirt that would collect the plastic as the oceans currents passed by. The idea is that this whole contraption would be moving slowly or not at all, while the ocean current would be moving quickly; that’s how it would be able to catch and collect the plastic as it moves by. Slat said that a ship could go out and pick up the accumulated trash and haul it back to land.

It didn’t work out exactly as planned. The prototype didn’t collect as much plastic as planned and a big part of it actually broke off. Ironically, the crew of a ship monitoring Wilson collected more plastic by hauling fishing nets out of the ocean in their spare time than Wilson, the device designed to collect plastic, ever did. Around New Year’s 2019, a ship towed Wilson back to land for repairs. As one person said, “the sea is an unrelenting trial judge.”

The Ocean Cleanup Project is not without its critics. Some scientists said that they should have done much more testing in controlled environments before rushing to build and launch a prototype. Others say that the nonprofit’s biggest strength is attracting publicity and raising money. The strongest criticism, however, is that best thing for the oceans may not be to collect the big bits of plastic that make it to the Garbage Patch. Only about 1% of the plastic in all the oceans is even in this one place, and only a fraction of that is big enough to be collected by a device like Wilson. The best place to start, some people say, is by preventing plastic from getting into the ocean in the first place. There are also some worries that any cleanup device might actually hurt the marine life that lives near the surface of the ocean.

Slat and his team have taken the setbacks, and the criticism, in stride. They are now planning to release a second version that, they say, will address the setbacks they experienced. And they have listened to a lot of their technical critics, who predicted the project would fail at the outset. Slat acknowledges that preventing trash from getting into the ocean is an important priority, but he says that doesn’t mean you should work on getting the garbage that’s already in the ocean, out again.

Part of the urgency of his message is that so much plastic is winding up in the wrong places—namely, back in the food chain. When small sea creatures ingest microplastics, then the fish that eat them will ingest it, and so on. Studies have found traces of plastics in shrimp, table salt, beer, and in eighty-four percent of the tap water around the world.


There might be a little sour grapes among his critics—sour grapes is when you criticize because you’re a little bit jealous. You can imagine scientists, highly technical people, working their whole careers on these issues, see a kid at eighteen years old, with very little training, become a YouTube celebrity, raise millions of dollars, launch a huge prototype, get showered with media attention and praise, only to see the thing fail when finally put to the test. I think you do have to give Slat some credit for having the vision, hiring technical people, and trying it out. Hopefully his nonprofit learns all the lessons of the past and builds something that’s truly remarkable. They say they’ll have something ready in the next few years.

Before we get to the vocabulary word, I wanted to remind you about our partner, Audible, which is offering Plain English listeners a free audiobook. I’ve heard from so many people that you have long commutes, an hour every day, two hours every day, you spend in the car. And listen, JR and I try hard, but we can’t fill that kind of a commute every week. So you might try listening to an audiobook. And if you join Audible, you’ll get access to one full audiobook each month. An audiobook is like 12 hours in length, sometimes more, so you’ll never be without something good to listen to. If you’ve never tried an audiobook before, today is your lucky day, because Audible is offering a free audiobook just for signing up for a free trial subscription. Audible is a paid subscription, but you can try it out for a month for free. And in that month, you can download one audiobook for free, and keep it forever. If you don’t want to pay, just cancel before a month is up. Simple as that. They have great books in English, but they also have books in your own language. To check that out, just go to PlainEnglish.com/book.

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Expression: Take something in stride