The Ultimate Garbage Disposal • Let’s talk trash….. Only we humans make waste that nature can’t digest. • Charles Moore
It’s as big as Texas….. • Twice as big as Texas…. • As big as the continental United States……….. • Actually no term is quite adequate to describe the dimensions of the Great mass of human-made debris, the so called Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which swirls in the currents of the North Pacific Ocean.
It is connected to the entire ocean, the planet’s circulatory system, and all of that ocean, Pole to Pole is clogged with large, medium and especially small pieces of plastic and other goods discarded by people worldwide.
Bits of colorful plastic get caught up with bottles, shoes, plates, buckets, straws, tooth brushes, shavers, coolers, bags and much more, carried by ocean currents across the face of the planet but collected in especially highconcentrationsin afew favored places.
Eternal Plastic • The most abundant, troublesome, persistent, deadly debris in the sea is composed of plastic. • A U.S. Ocean study (2008) defines plastics as a term that encompasses the wide range of synthetic polymeric materials that are characterized by their deformability and can thus be moldedinto a variety of 3 dimensional shapes, including a variety of common materials such as polypropylene, polystyrene, nylon, and polycarbonate. • Marinedebris- defined as any persistent, manufactured, or processed solid material that is directly or indirectly, intentionally or unintentionally, disposed of or abandoned into the marineenvironment . This means everything from Russian nuclear submarines abandoned in the North Sea to a plastic-foam cup tossed overboard on a weekend outing. • It is possible to survive without plastics, although people born since the 1970’s might not think so. All of human civilization got along perfectly well without plastics for as long as there have been people…we could do it again, but whether we possess plastic or not is not the problem. The problem is the magnitude of synthetic materials that are used briefly, then thrown away for eternity.
The bright side is that healthy natural systems can, in time soften heavy-handed human impacts. For example, • Hermit crabs have been known to use light weight durable substitute for traditional snail shells.
Glass bottles and metal cans are unsightly when tossed into the sea, but are basically inert. Cans corrode over time, and glass, while durable, appears to do no harm • Octopuses, gobies and young groupers adopt jars & cans as safe havens.
Large pieces of trash are eyesores, and some kinds, especially plastic bags are lethal to sea turtles, whales, and whalesharks when the indigestible material is engulfed and jams their digestive system.
A whale washed ashore in California in 2007, died of unknown causes, but had 181 kilograms (400 pounds) of plastic in its stomach. • Lost and discarded fishing gear cause major problems by entangling and killing marine mammals, birds, and other marine life.
Nurdles, Pellets and Dyes • Less obvious, much harder to retrieve, and more insidious are small bits of plastic, fragment of larger objects, as well ad countless tiny pale pebbles dubbed nurdles, the pre-production plastic spheres that are later melted and molded to produce thousands of products from juice jugs and action figures to lamp shades and chairs.
Nurdles • Over 250 billion pounds of nurdles are created from petrochemicals every year and transported by trucks and tankers, loaded on containerships, and carried to global destinations. They are light, bouncy, and hard to retrain.
In one way or another, it has taken only about 40 years for nurdles and other bits of plastic to rival the grains of sand on beaches around the world. Beachcombing children call the pearly plastic spheres mermaid tears.
MARPOL • In 1988, an international convention, MARPOL Annex V, came into force that began regulating marine debris. It prohibited disposal of plastics but allowed other garbage to be put into the sea. In the U.S., actions are implemented through the Act to prevent pollution from ships, a law that makes it illegal to dispose of plastics at sea and includes restrictions on the disposal of other garbage. • Making the law was one thing; enforcing it is another.
David de Rothschild dreamed up a way to create global awareness and encourage industry to focus on win-win solutions to plastic pollution. Of the 39 billion plastic bottles that are used in the United States alone every year (about 2 million every 5 seconds), only about 20 %get reused. Rothschild decided to make a message of the bottle…..thousands of them.
Plastiki • In 2009, Rothschild launched a 60 foot catamaran built entirely of recycled plastic bottles for an expedition from San Francisco, across the Great Pacific Garbage Patch through islands of the South Pacific , to Sydney.
Turn Trash into Teasure • Several companies are building equipment to transform beach trash intosolid bricks and boards that can be used for building materials. Plastic bottles gathered during beach cleanups can be recycled for a variety of new uses
Getting at the small pieces mixed with plankton is much more challenging. Anything that could strain out the bits of plastic would take the plankton as well. • Charles Moore, a retired businessman, surfer, and boat captain, was one of the first to sound the alarm about the plasticization of the sea.
By chance, Moore encountered the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in 1997 while sailing to Hawaii. He was horrified when he came upon what appeared to be an enormous island. (floating trash) • With his boat called the Algalita he started the Algalita Marine Research Foundationand has become a passionate ambassador for cleaning up the oicean.
On a 1999 expedition, Moore compared the number and weight of plastic pieces in samples taken with fine- mesh nets pulled through the Garbage Patch. He found that for every pound of plankton, there was six pounds of trash ( 6 times more plastic then plankton)
Does it matter? • It matters to the seabirds that mistake colorful plastic pieces for food. For example, 95% of seabird carcasses washed ashore along the North Sea coast were stuffed with plastic, an average of 45 pieces per bird.
It also matters to fish that snap up bits too small to be noticed by birds. Moore examined the stomach contents of fish in the central Pacific and found that nearly all had at least some plastic. A lantern fish only 2.5 inches long was packed with 84 individual pieces.
Other Consequences • Plastic is made of petrochemicals that include various dyes and other additives depending on their intended use.Some may be inert and harmless, none were intended for consumption by living creatures. Plastics may contain substances that mimic hormones and can become endocrine disrupters. There is some evidence that these “gender benders” may be influencing the biological systems of marine organisms high on the food chain.
Small pieces of plastic attract and concentrate toxins that are in the ocean such as mercury, fire retardants, pesticides. Nurdles sampled in water near Japan had levels of DDE (pesticide) and PCB a million times greater than were in the surrounding sea. The effect of biological magnification is intensified when toxin enhanced plastic is consumed.
There appears to be no limit to how far down the food chain the accumulation of plastics and their toxic chemical baggage can go. The consequences to ocean chemistry are simply unknown, but they need to be understood and factored in to the growing number of issues directly affecting the ocean’s health, and thus our own.
Those who consume seafood should be asking another question: How far up the food chain do ingested plastics go? Does it matter if we eat oysters or anchovies or clams that have stuffed themselves with something other than little shrimp and algae?
It has taken us a while, but maybe the concept has finally sunk in. We can shift our trash, move it, cover it up, toss it into the sea, and turn our back, but everything connects. There is no “ away” to throw to!