A 52-year-old man is swimming through the Pacific Garbage Patch. He's caught disgusting trash, including a toothbrush and a toilet seat.
- Swimmer Ben Lecomte is making his way through the Great Pacific Garbage Patch right now. He's kicked through 371 miles of trash.
- The garbage patch is essentially a vortex of plastic trash in the ocean between Hawaii and California. It's bigger than two Texases.
- Lecomte spoke with Business Insider from his boat and said "the most disgusting thing is the amount of microplastic that we capture in our nets every day."
- Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.
Somewhere in the Pacific Ocean, swimmer Ben Lecomte is kicking through trash.Lecomte swam across the Atlantic Ocean - from the US to France - in 1998, and he tried to become the first person to swim across the Pacific last year, traveling 1,753 miles before calling it quits. Advertisement
This year, he decided to plow through a swirling vortex of garbage between Hawaii and California known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
"I'm not trying to go for any record," Lecomte told Business Insider from the sailboat that's following him as he swims. "It's a unique opportunity to show exactly what is under the surface."The human race dumps about 8 million pounds of plastic trash into the oceans every year. For context, the average 16.9-ounce bottle of water weighs less than 13 grams, so there are at least 35 water bottles in a pound of trash. But of course, bottles are not the only litter in the sea: there are abandoned fishing nets, laundry baskets, toilet seats, toothbrushes, and much more.
Currents sweep up a lot of this plastic and carry it to a handful of locations in the ocean. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is the most well known of these trash vortices - it's double the size of Texas and now holds 79,000 tons of trash.That's what Lecomte is swimming through. He wants the effort to bring more awareness to the issue of plastic consumption and show people what the garbage patch really looks like. "I want to share what it is through swimming and bring people with me," he said. Advertisement
Here's what Lecomte's journey has looked like so far.
Lecomte wanted to log at least 300 nautical miles in the garbage patch (roughly equivalent to 345 miles) because it's estimated that the world produces about 300 million tons of plastic every year. So he is swimming more than one mile for each million tons.
This isn't his first big swim in open water. He swam across the Atlantic — from Massachusetts to France — in 1998. Upon arrival, he proposed to the woman who's now his wife, Trinh Dang.Advertisement
Last year, Lecomte attempted to become the first person to swim across the Pacific. He made it about a third of the way from Japan to California before he called it quits.
In June, Lecomte set out from Hawaii in a 67-foot yacht, headed toward the patch. He's traveling with nine other crew members.Advertisement
According to his live tracker, Lecomte has surpassed his symbolic goal already: He has swam at least 323 nautical miles and spent 230 hours kicking through the waves.
When Lecomte starts swimming each day, a support dinghy follows him, making sure doesn't get lost and feeding him soup and bread every two or three hours.Advertisement
Lecomte said one of the greatest misconceptions about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is that it's one big trash heap. "It’s not a big floating island," he said.
In addition to plastic bags and big pieces of trash, Lecomte also comes into contact with a lot of small particles in the water. Some attach to his wetsuit.Advertisement
"The most disgusting thing is the amount of microplastic that we capture in our nets every day," he said.
Lecomte even found microplastic stuck to his face after a swim.Advertisement
Lecomte said that out at sea, he encounters some in-your-face wildlife. "Very often, albatross come when I am swimming, land beside me, and peck on my hand, peck on my wetsuit," he said. "You’re in the middle of the ocean and a bird comes out of nowhere and he’s very curious and not afraid at all. That’s a nice feeling.”
Manufactured plastic as we know it has been around for about 110 years, and Lecomte says we could easily get by with much less of it. "Single-use plastic is something that we can stop using," he said.Advertisement
The trash Lecomte's team has found at sea isn't all single-use, though. It also includes at least one toilet seat.
"The items that we all use end up right here," Lecomte added. "Because we don't always manage [plastic] the right way on land, and then the ocean becomes a big trash."Advertisement
Surprisingly, Lecomte said he has yet to spot a plastic straw at sea. Cities like Seattle and San Francisco have recently banned plastic straws, but Lecomte said the problem is much greater than any single item.
"There are alternatives" to all sorts of plastics, he said.Advertisement
"One of the properties of plastic is that it attracts pollutants," Lecomte said. "So every time you have a little bit of microplastic, the problem is the plastic itself, but also the pollutant that is attached to the plastic."
That's a problem for marine life. A 2018 study found that when corals come in contact with plastic, their risk of disease jumps from 4% to 89%.Advertisement
"There is a little ecosystem that is being created," Lecomte said.
Critters can drift far from their usual habitats using these novel plastic homes.Advertisement
In addition to plastic, the patch is also full of 'ghost' nets that fishing boats leave behind. A 2018 study estimated that 46% of the garbage patch is "comprised of fishing nets."
"It's very rare to find one ghost net," Lecomte said — they're more often found in a tangled web with pieces of different colors and sizes, "like a bowl of noodles," he added.Advertisement
Sea life is attracted to the nets.
In fact, species of fish that are usually only found in reefs and coastal regions are showing up in open water, brought in by these nets and other plastic items, Lecomte said.Advertisement
"It’s amazing what lives under it and in it," he said of the nets.
It's estimated that 7,000 kilometers (4,350 miles) of fishing nets are lost in the North Pacific every year.Advertisement
There's no shortage of bottle caps in the garbage patch either, so Lecomte tried out the viral #bottlecapchallenge at sea. "Instead of kicking the lid off of a single-use plastic bottle and creating more waste, we used a bottle we collected from the middle of the Pacific Ocean," he said.
The crew sometimes catch fresh mahi-mahi to eat. They investigate the stomach contents of each fish before they consume it, and find plastic.Advertisement
A few days ago, Lecomte met up with a team from The Ocean Cleanup, a project led by 24-year-old Boyan Slat that aims to develop new ways to clean up trash in the Pacific Garbage Patch. (The organization has had only limited success so far.)
Lecomte expects to finish his swim soon and be back on dry land at the end of August. Then he'll return home to his wife and kids in Texas.Advertisement
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