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The Great Pacific Garbage Patch Is Virtually Invisible. That’s a Problem

Craig Leeson was a surfer and a diver before he took on the task of directing the multi-award winning documentary, A Plastic Ocean, which revealed the staggering levels of plastic pollution awash in the sea. Despite spending so much time in the water, even he wasn’t aware of the extent of the problem.

“Plastics were invisible to me before I started this project,” Lesson said during an interview on stage at Fortune’s Global Sustainability Forum in Yunnan province, China on Thursday. “It became invisible to all of us, because we use it so much. It’s such a powerful and useful product.”

When Leeson says “invisible,” he means that consumers simply weren’t considering where plastic goes when they throw it away, and no wonder — in the 1950s advertisements praised plastic products for being completely disposable, birthing the throwaway culture we’re grappling with today. But the plastics polluting the ocean are invisible in a literal way too.

“You can’t see it,” Leeson says, referring to the so-called Great Pacific Garbage Patch, where ocean currents have accumulated thousands of tons of plastics in a great swirling mass, but an invisible mass. “You can’t see it. It’s not an island as big as Texas [as often reported]; the water appears clear.”

It can take 30 to 40 years for plastics flushed into the ocean to wind up in one of the earth's five swirling intersections of ocean currents, known as gyres. Over that time, the plastics are broken apart into smaller and smaller pieces, eventually forming microplastics that are naked to the invisible eye. That’s why the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is mostly clear.

However, the invisible microplastics actually pose a bigger problem. Microplastics absorb toxins that are deposited in the sea from industrial run-off. Because microplastics are so small they are easily consumed by fish and other sea creatures which, consequently, absorb the same toxins the plastics have soaked up. Ultimately, when we eat the fish, we consume those toxins too.

Architect and designer Bill McDonough, who was on stage before Leeson, is a proponent of developing circular economies as a means to divert trash from the oceans. However, Leeson doesn’t think circular economies—essentially an evolution of recycling initiatives—are the answer because “recycling isn’t broken…it was never designed to work.”

Asked for a solution, Leeson said we need to ban single use plastics. “These are toxic substances, if they existed in any other form we wouldn’t be allowed to use them… We have to declare them toxic because if we declare them toxic there’s regulation to deal with them.”

That’s a bold proposal and not one that would likely resonate with some forum attendees, but facing a climate crisis, bold ideas are welcome.

More must-read stories from Fortune:

—Watch here: Fortune Global Sustainability Forum 2019 livestream
—Impossible Foods wants China to make its own meat
—Dow CEO Jim Fitterling has a counter-argument to the plastic backlash
—Former Sinopec chairman says Chinese executives think climate change can wait
—China’s Yangtze river basin—the world’s third-largest economy—is at great risk
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