Theory vs. Reality – marine debris through leaks in a perfect system

With our long-term partners at 5Gyres, we have had an ongoing disucussion about exactly why…and how plastic debris actually gets into the oceanic gyres…way out to sea. Ironically, the easy part of the discussion is how it gets from your local watershed – a neighborhood storm drain, creek or shoreline – to the center of the ocean. Nature has powerful and consistent mechanisms for such long-distance transport.

The hard part, and therefore intersting to us, is from your hand to the watershed. In theory, this should not happen. Plastic in the hands of citizens should flow to contained, long-term storage in landfills – at the bare minumum (recylcling is even better). It shoud leave our hands and enter into an air-tight channel of waste management that delivers it flawlessly to safe, final storage. This should happen in all conditions, and with all types of people- no matter what. As simple as these waste streams are -and given how much experience we have with them – you would think we would get it right. If we can launch rockets, fly airplanes and do complex medical procedures…we should be able to deliver waste from hand to landfill. On top of this, we really believe that the vast majority of people, waste management operators, and authorities do take this seriously and work hard every day to make it right.

Yet we have an oceans, rivers, and shorelines of debris staring us in the face. Where is it going wrong? This recent story on brings one such “failure mode” to life.


Issues with rockets, air travel and medical errors aside, clearly the world is hard on our theoretical systems…. 🙂 Perhaps what we need are systems that are natuarally much more tolerant of our imperct execution?