“This is a perfect case of the tragedy of the commons,” said Doug Woodring, co-founder and co-director of Project Kaisei, the ocean cleanup initiative of the California-based nonprofit Ocean Voyages Institute. “We all did this.”

 During a lecture at Wharton, Woodring told an audience that he was seeking to call attention to a phenomenon known as the “garbage patch,” an environmental disaster of unprecedented proportions that is polluting the Pacific Ocean with floating plastic.

We’re all guilty of helping create the garbage patch, because we all use plastic: Americans go through an estimated 380 billion plastic bags every year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. National Geographic reports that more than 85 million plastic bottles are used every three minutes, and the vast majority is not recycled. Globally, according to Greenpeace, 10 billion pounds of plastic (a tenth of worldwide production) enters the world’s oceans every year. 

In the ocean, irresponsibly discarded plastic becomes a form of marine tumbleweed: It is carried by wind and waves into the confluence of currents known as gyres, and especially into the calm center of the North Pacific Gyre (one of five around the world). This global plastic pollution, gathered in distinct and gigantic patches, is a menace to hundreds of species of marine life, including fish that mistake it for food and thus carry increasingly toxic loads of it in their bodies. Sea turtles mistake plastic for jellyfish and consume it, too.

Sixty percent of the plastic that enters the oceans sinks to the bottom, but the remainder floats and biodegrades only very slowly, breaking into smaller and smaller pieces. The plastic passes through the food chain, including to birds and humans.

With Project Kaisei co-founder George Orbelian, Woodring has led two expeditions to the North Pacific Gyre that have been tracked by Google Earth. The region is seldom visited, since it’s in the vast expanse of ocean between Japan, Hawaii and the U.S. West Coast. Woodring clears up some misconceptions: The plastic is spread out, and not concentrated as to resemble an eighth continent or floating island landfill. “It is probably distributed over an area that’s larger than the state of Texas, and it was pervasive everywhere we went. We found plastic at 100 and 200 meters, and we dragged nets for 3,500 miles and got plastic in every single sample. We found 87 pieces of plastic in one fish.” Between 70% and 80% of the plastic originated on land, according to the UN — it is not primarily from ocean dumping.

Woodring, who is based in Hong Kong and has worked in Asia for 17 years, has a background in finance that has proven useful in fundraising for the daunting task of ocean cleanup. He is chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce’s Environmental Committee in Hong Kong, and has worked to finance renewable energy projects in micro-wind and wave energy, as well as energy-efficiency for buildings.

One of Woodring’s latest efforts is the Plastic Disclosure Project. Modeled on the Carbon Disclosure Project and launched through a new entity called the Ocean Recovery Alliance, the initiative is an annual global survey that asks companies and asset managers to detail their use of plastic and consider innovations to reduce its use in manufacturing and supply chains. The plastic-usage information will be compiled in an annual public report.

Project Kaisei (the name means “ocean planet” in Japanese) is a labor of love for Woodring. Because it is unlikely that financially strained governments, especially those in the Pacific itself, will fund a public clean-up campaign, he is pursuing the feasibility of a wide variety of potentially profitable ventures, including recycling the gathered plastic, or turning it into biofuels in regions where diesel and gasoline are expensive. Plastic-to-fuel initiatives, Woodring said, would give private entrepreneurs an incentive to collect floating waste, the recovery of which is complicated by its dispersed condition across vast stretches of ocean.

Woodring laments the governmental priorities that pour billions into visiting and analyzing the dry surface of the moon, leaving little resources left to explore and protect the increasingly threatened oceans that cover more than 70% of our planet. “No one country owns the oceans,” he said. “There are no laws, and no boundaries. We can’t easily go to governments and say, ‘It’s your job to clean it up.’ The current model is broken. The international Law of the Sea hasn’t worked to save the oceans, so we’re trying to create a new model.”