Plastic Makes It Possible: Then it retires right to the middle of the ocean in a giant, floating trash heap.
RESEARCH AND STORY x Kira Stoops
Your used baggies, crusty cling-wrap, backwash filled water bottles and ripped grocery bags have reached the end of their short yet useful lives and are ready for a long waterfront retirement. Right now, they’re probably en route to plastics’ most popular rest home: the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a floating ocean community of discarded plastic remnants located in the North Pacific Gyre. So, just how popular is this retirement destination? It’s hard to say, but current estimates suggest a heap of floating synthetic junk ranging anywhere from twice the size of Texas to almost 8.1% of the Pacific’s total area. And it’s easy for tired trash to get here too—it just has to hop into a local garbage can, then our rivers, wind, and faulty landfills will ultimately do the rest. Finally, like a good gated retirement community, the swirling currents of the gyre ensure that once trash arrives, it doesn’t wander off.
Although scientists had long suspected that our ‘disposable culture’ would eventually create something akin to the Garbage Patch, it wasn’t until 1997 that Captain Charles Moore actually discovered it. Moore had decided to take the long way home after a sailing competition, and eventually found himself in the near windless waters of the Pacific Gyre. It was here that he stumbled across a vast collection of discarded plastic in the form of water bottles, disposable diapers, tampon applicators, pens, toys, plastic crates and so on—a massive island of preserved artifacts from a far-away culture, bobbing incongruously on the once pure Pacific waters.
Moore returned at once to warn the world. He then formed the Algalita Marine Research Foundation before returning to the gyre two years later to begin studying the floating trash heap. Unfortunately, Moore’s studies revealed that these lost-at-sea diapers were merely visual indicators of much deeper, more serious problems; problems that held devastating consequences for marine life and humanity alike.
CHAPTER 1 : Plastic Soup
Since most plastic doesn’t biodegrade, Moore easily found intact pieces of trash such as whole bottle caps, plastic toys, and fishing equipment. But, what plastic does do is photodegrade, or break down into tiny plastic flakes. As a result, when Moore’s crew trawled the surrounding sea with very fine mesh, they discovered ubiquitous amounts of tiny plastic filaments. After drying out samples, they found these fine plastic bits outweighed plankton biomass nearly 6:1. (Performing the same study 10 years later, the result had grown to a staggering 48:1). Thus, Moore dubbed the plastic-strewn waters of the Gyre “plastic soup”. It appeared that although big trash was one problem, these miniature plastic flakes were quite another; they insidiously sneak into fish and marine birds’ bodies (permanently), and seem to make cleanup, at least in Moore’s opinion, impossible.
Optimists wonder why we can’t just boat out to the trash heap, load it up, and dispose of it properly? Well, because these plastic flakes are really the culprit, and they’re so small they would require an incredibly fine mesh net to remove them—a net so fine that it would end up taking a hefty chunk of ocean’s plankton (the entire basis for marine life) along with it. And while the trash heap itself might “only” be as huge as Texas (times 2!), this ‘plastic soup’ extends much, much farther. And deeper: as plastic breaks down, it loses buoyancy and begins to sink, eventually infiltrating the water column. Even without the problem of lost plankton, the sheer scale of filtering out these micro plastic flakes practically makes cleanup tantamount to sifting the entire Sahara.
CHAPTER 2 : The Implications
Sure, it’s gross to think about Malibu Barbie floating in her own plastic soup somewhere in the Pacific Ocean, but if it’s all contained in the Gyre, is there any legitimate, or at least immediate concern? Yes. It’s a particularly immediate concern if you’re a fish or a marine bird that can’t help but ingest the small plastic flakes, or one who mistakes bigger trash items for food. Just for starters, the plastic flakes love to soak up harmful organic pollutants in the seawater like DDT, which are in turn ingested right along with the flakes. For smaller creatures, the floating plastic masses are like a “party-cruise” mini-ecosystem capable of transporting them far from home. Lift up an old plastic chair in the Pacific Gyre, and you’re likely to see a lost school of fish gathered below. Eventually some of these creatures end up traveling farther than they ever could naturally, whereupon they become displaced from their original community and are forced to enter new ecosystems as an invasive species, potentially throwing off the fragile balance of marine life.
The bigger trash then creates an obvious and direct hazard to wildlife as well, the kind that are most often shown as shocking photographs along with stories about the Gyre. When study teams performed necropsies on fish and birds, they found their stomachs full of both plastic particles, as well as entire bottle caps, pens, and other small plastic items. Fish mistake plastic bags for jellyfish; marine birds gulp down colorful bottle caps they think are food, regurgitating them into the mouths of their young, ultimately killing themselves and their offspring.
But maybe the accompanying photograph should really be a sick human. As Moore said in his TED address, “No fishmonger can sell you an organic, wild-caught fish” anymore because plastic contaminated ocean life is now so prevalent. Think of it this way – if a minnow ingests flakes of plastic contaminated with pollutants and then gets eaten by a bigger fish, eventually those contaminated plastic flakes will make it into your dinner, and will accumulate in your tissues. “Every one of us has this huge body burden,” Moore says, “you could take your serum to a lab now, and they’d find at least 100 industrial chemicals that weren’t around in 1950”.
And if that’s not bad enough, Japanese scientists made a new discovery this August that completely rocks the proverbial boat…
CHAPTER 3 : Plastic DOES Degrade
Everyone has heard that a plastic bag made today will still be around 1,000 years later—and for the most part, that’s true. But just this August, Japanese researchers confirmed that some plastics can biodegrade in the sea and at temperatures as low as 87 degrees Fahrenheit — which isn’t a good thing. The scientists found plastics like Styrofoam and old cutlery biodegrading within a year of becoming ocean trash! So then, what’s the problem? In the process of biodegrading, the plastic leeches bispenhol A into the seas (you probably know bispenhol A as BPA, or the chemical that launched the great water bottle scare). It’s been implicated in causing a number of reproductive and hormone problems in animals, and new studies say even small prenatal doses of BPA can make lab rats grow up obese.
The only silver lining happens to be that the strict temperature requirement of 87 degrees pretty much constrains the biodegrading plastic to tropical areas. Additionally, it appears that only certain types of plastic actually biodegrade. However, that doesn’t stop the flakes from traveling away once they’ve degraded and become contaminated.
CHAPTER 4 : So what do we do now?
Moore says it’s too late for cleanup (others disagree, see sidebars for discussion) and that prevention is the only cure. Most people have already heard “bring your own grocery bags, buy things without excessive packaging, and drink from a reusable mug”, what they don’t realize is that the Great Garbage Patch is one major reason why. Recycling is not enough, nor is simply buying recycled goods, since even recycled products require a layer of virgin plastic. Reuse the plastic things you already have, donate the ones you can no longer use, and resist buying yet another plastic or plastic-packaged product. Probably the best thing a person can do to help diminish the Great Garbage Patch is realistically view plastic products in light of their imminent Oceanside retirement destination: that vast, swirling ‘plastic soup’ that’s infiltrating our once pristine ocean waters, and in turn, the many lives dependent on these waters…including our own.
OUTRO: Project Kasei & Plastiki
Captain Charles Moore, discoverer of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, maintains the Patch can’t be cleaned up, but a group of scientists, educators, sailors, and others interested in the ocean, aims to do just that — and turn the trash into diesel fuel.
Project Kasei launched their initial vogage in August, dubbing it the Scripps Environmental Accumulation of Plastic Expedition (SEAPLEX). The voyage takes place aboard the New Horizon, a ship owned by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Their first mission is to collect 40 tons of debris for study. Ideally, the results of the study would allow scientists to create and eventually execute a yet-to-be-determined new method to clean up the Gyre, and turn its contents into new plastic, clothing, commercial products, and diesel fuel.
As various teams study the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, they’re finding one particular product more pervasive than the rest: water bottles. That’s why David de Rothschild is out to prove the point that there are better ways to use plastic, so that it doesn’t end up in the Gyre. His boat, dubbed the Plastiki, will be constructed completely from plastic, and the hulls of his catamaran will be made from 12,000 plastic bottles pumped full of CO2. Soon, the Plastiki will set sail across the Pacific, traveling from San Francisco to Sydney, Australia, visiting a host of ocean maladies such as coral bleaching, ocean rising, acidification, and of course, garbage patches. – Kira Stoops
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