Friday, May 31, 2013

The Big, Blue… Garbage Patch

Imagine turning yourself into a thumb-sized plastic action figure and squeezing inside an empty soda bottle. Then imagine some dimwit tossing the bottle out of a car window and into the mighty Columbia River. Where would you go? What would you see?

After getting thrown hither and thither on roiling rapids and drifting out to sea, you might expect to wash up on a tropical island with sandy beaches and a lone palm tree. More likely, however, you'd wind your way around the mighty Pacific Ocean for days, weeks, and months to end up in a giant, twisting, floating… garbage dump!

That’s right. Those vast, wild bodies of water we call oceans are filling up with plastic garbage.  Our garbage—old shopping bags, flip-flop sandals, water bottles, coat hangers, cigarette lighters, fishing nets… and on and on. In fact, the National Academy of Sciences estimates that 6.4 million tons of litter enter the world’s oceans every year, and many researchers believe this estimate is far too small.

So what’s causing this trash to accumulate in floating garbage dumps? There are three main parts to the equation. First, in our quest for a light, durable, malleable material to make things out of, we invented plastic. And we use it a lot—so much that in the past several decades plastic pollution has transformed the face of our planet—reaching every ocean and the most remote shorelines.

Courtesy of Algalita Marine Research Institute
The second part of the equation—many of us discarding our trash—isn't actually new. Our ancestors dumped trash for ages before us. Long ago, however, everything people used came straight from the natural world. So their trash was biodegradable, which means that microorganisms decomposed it relatively quickly. Plastic is very different. It isn't biodegradable. Instead, it is photodegradable, which means that sunlight breaks plastic into smaller and smaller pieces. Eventually a piece may be broken into individual molecules—but even then it doesn't go away. Living things can't digest plastic. Plastic is forever! 

The third part of the equation is as natural as sunshine, seaweed, and sandy beaches.  Ocean currents—and in this case, circular ones, called gyres. In fact, there are nine continent-sized gyres in the world’s oceans. They rotate clockwise in the Northern Hemisphere and counterclockwise south of the equator. All nine of these gyres are accumulating plastic waste.

So after you (an action figure in a soda bottle) drift out to sea, you would likely reach one of the largest gyres on Earth—the North Pacific Gyre. Its circular currents would draw you toward its center, where you would bob about mingling with other discarded junk (sorry to call you junk). And there you would stay for a long, long, long time.

Courtesy of Algalita Marine Research Institute
Eventually, your bottle would photodegrade into pieces too small to support your weight, and you would have to catch a ride on more recently arrived garbage. A worn-out fishing float would work just fine. One thing is certain: you'd have plenty of trash to choose from.  Research has shown that there is six times more plastic by weight than plankton in the North Pacific Gyre, and more is accumulating all the time. Charles Moore, a research scientist who studies plastic pollution in oceans and the founder of the nonprofit Algalita Marine Research Institute in Long beach, California, describes his first time in the gyre this way: “I was confronted, as far as the eye could see, with the sight of plastic.”

Where does all this garbage come from?  It might start as litter thrown from a school bus window. It might blow from a landfill on a windy afternoon. It may be dumped from a fishing vessel in the Sea of Okhotsk or spill from a cargo ship in the Gulf of Alaska.  Even if you live in the mountains of Colorado, plastic that you don't dispose of properly could eventually make its way down storm drains, streams, and rivers to end up in the ocean.  After every heavy rain in Southern California, many tons of plastic trash flow from rivers into the Pacific.

Stomach contents of a dead Albatross on Midway Atoll
Courtesy of 
Algalita Marine Research Institute
And there is an even more sinister side to this plastic garbage than just making our oceans and beaches ugly. As you drift about the North Pacific Gyre you would witness sick sea animals—and many dead ones—because of all this trash. 

According to the Marine Mammal Commission, garbage in the world’s oceans affects at least 267 species, including 86 percent of sea turtles, 44 percent of seabirds, and 43 percent of marine mammals.  The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) estimates that well over 100,000 marine mammals die each year because they get tangled in discarded plastic fishing nets. And some sea animals inadvertently eat plastic, thinking it's food. Charles Moore says that the stomach contents of dead albatross often “look like the cigarette lighter shelf at a convenience store.” To make matters even worse, toxic chemicals often coat plastic trash in the ocean, causing deadly poisoning and disease in sea life.

Stomach contents of a dead Albatross on Midway Atoll
Courtesy of 
Algalita Marine Research Institute
As a plastic action figure, you would survive in the North Pacific Gyre a long time. Parts of you, your feet or ears perhaps, might photodegrade, but overall you'd observe the ugly gyre for a good, long while. Perhaps you'd even beat the odds and eventually wash up on a distant beach. After decades of floating around the sea on pieces of long-forgotten junk, you'd likely have many thoughts about plastic trash and the environmental problems it causes. You'd likely have some ideas about how we could all help to make our oceans a little bit cleaner.  What would your solutions be? What would you tell people to do differently?  Please share your thoughts with us below.

To read several scholarly articles on the effects of plastic on health and the environment, see this theme issue of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society: Plastics, the Environment and Human Health

A Few Simple Things Can You Do:
  1. Try to buy products that don't use plastic packaging.
  2. Maintain and fix the products you own rather than throwing them away to buy new ones.
  3. Recycle the plastic products you consume.
  4. Buy recycled products.
  5. Dispose of trash properly.
  6. Tell your friends, family, and community leaders about the problems associated with plastic pollution.

 J.S. Kapchinske is the author of Coyote Summer.