Are There Really 'Continents' of Floating Garbage?
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December 31, 2007

Are There Really 'Continents' of Floating Garbage?

Trashpattern_2Since stories have started surfacing more recently, many have wondered, if the rumors are true. Are there really 'continents', or massive
floating garbage patches residing in the pacific ocean? Apparently, the rumors are true, and these unsightly patches are reportedly
killing marine life and releasing poisons that enter the human food chain, as well. However, before you start imagining a plastic version of Maui, keep in mind that these plastic patches certainly aren'tsolid surfaced islands that you could build a house on! Ocean currents have collected massive amounts of garbage into a sort of plastic "soup" where countless bits of discarded plastic float intertwined just beneath the surface. Indeed, the human race has really made its mark. One enormous plastic patch is estimated to weigh over 3 million tons altogether and cover an area roughly twice the size of Texas.

Plastic_ocean_trash_5

But if there is an unfathomably massive collection of plastic junk out there, then why doesn't everyone already know about it, and why aren't we doing something about it? Well, there are several reasons. First, no one is keen to claim responsibility for these monstrosities, which exists in one of the most remote spots on the planet. It's easier to ignore than to deal with, at least in the short term. Most of the
plastic is floating just below the surface where explorers, researchers, and scientists can get a good close-up view, but it is nearly impossible to see the massive quantities of submerged trash in
photographs taken from great distances. This makes it easier for naysayers to disregard the problem as a mere myth, in spite of all of the well-documented research to the contrary. Clean up seems nearly
impossible at this point, so even those who are well aware of the situation have adopted the famous ostrich cliche of burying their heads in the sand. Even so, this polluted, chemical filled junk is finding it's way onto our dinner tables.

Sadly, marine researcher Charles Moore at the Algalita Marina Research Foundation in Long Beach says there’s no practical fix for the problem. He has been studying the massive patch for the past 10 years, and said the debris is to the point where it would be nearly impossible to extract.

"Any attempt to remove that much plastic from the oceans - it boggles the mind," Moore said from Hawaii, where his crew is docked. "There's just too much, and the ocean is just too big."

The trash collects in this remote area, known as the North Pacific Gyre, due to a clockwise trade wind that encircles the Pacific Rim. According to Moore the trash accumulates the same way bubbles clump at the center of hot tub.

Ian Kiernan, the Australian founder of Clean Up the World, started his environmental campaign two decades ago after being shocked by the incredible amount of rubbish he saw on an around-the-world solo yacht race. He'll says he’ll never be able the wipe the atrocious site from his memory.

"It was just filled with things like furniture, fridges, plastic containers, cigarette lighters, plastic bottles, light globes, televisions and fishing nets," Kiernan says. "It's all so durable it floats. It's just a major problem."

Kiernan says it’s killing wildlife in a vicious cycle. Holding an ashtray filled with colorful pieces of plastic he told The Sydney Morning Herald, "this is the contents of a fleshy-footed shearwater's stomach. They go to the ocean to fish but there ain't no fish - there's plastic. They then regurgitate it down the necks of their fledglings and it kills them. After the birds decompose, the plastic gets washed back into the ocean where it can kill again. It's a form of ghost fishing, where it goes on and on."

A Dutch study in the North Sea of fulmar seabirds concluded 95 per cent of the birds had plastic in their stomachs. More than 1600 pieces were found in the stomach of one bird in Belgium.

The United Nations Environment Program says plastic is accountable for the deaths of more than a million seabirds and more than 100,000 marine mammals such as whales, dolphins and seals every year.

Since his first encounter with the gyre in 1997, Moore created the Algalita Marine Research Foundation to help study the problem. Canadian filmmaker Ian Connacher joined Moore last year to film the garbage patch for his documentary, I Am Plastic.

"The most menacing part is those little bits of plastic start looking like food for certain animals, or the filter feeders don't have any choice, they just pick them up," noted Connacher.

Perhaps an even bigger problem is hiding beneath the surface of the islands of garbage. Greenpeace reports that about 70 per cent of the plastic that makes it to the ocean sinks to the bottom, where it then smothers marine life on the ocean floor. Dutch scientists have found 600,000 tons of discarded plastic on the bottom of the North Sea alone.

A study by the Japanese geochemist Hideshige Takada and his colleagues at Tokyo University in 2001 found that plastic polymers soak up the resilient poisons such as DDT and polychlorinated biphenyls. The researchers found that non-water-soluble toxic chemicals can be found in plastic in levels as high as a million times their concentration in water. As small pieces of plastic are mistaken for fish eggs and other food by marine life, these toxins end up at the dinner table. But even without the extra toxins, eating plastic is hazardous to health.

It is estimated that 80 per cent of plastic found at sea is washed out from the land. The journal Science last year predicted seafood stocks would collapse by 2048 if overfishing and pollution continued. If the seafood stocks collapse, a lot of humans will follow. So, is there anything we can do to prevent this?

Greenpeace says embracing the three Rs - reduce, re-use and recycle - would help tackle the problem. Plastic recycling is lagging well behind paper and cardboard. Part of the reason is because many people aren’t even sure what recycling options exist in their area. But there are other challenges for plastic recycling too. Some plastics release toxic chemicals into the atmosphere, and are more expensive to recycle than to simply create a new product from petrochemicals.

The widespread use of bioplastics could largely reduce the amount of plastic strewn around the world. Traditional petrochemical-based plastics are non-degradable and non-renewable; degradable plastic breaks into smaller pieces in UV light but remains plastic. Then there are two kinds of biodegradable plastic that break down in compost - one from a petrochemical resource, the other from a renewable resource such as corn or wheat, which is known as bioplastic. Bioplastic is by far the most environmentally friendly option. Dr Katherine Dean, of the CSIRO, says corporate firms are now becoming increasingly interested in bioplastics.

"When oil prices soared in 2005, that changed a lot of people's perspective, because bioplastic became quite cost-competitive," she says. "All of a sudden it wasn't just about doing the right thing."

The company Plantic Technologies, has developed biodegradable plastic for everything from food and beverage packaging to medical, agricultural and sporting applications. The chief executive of Plantic, Grant Dow, says once composted, the plastic would become nothing more than carbon dioxide and water.

"For all intents and purposes, it looks like plastic and feels like plastic and does the same thing as plastic in the application," he says.

"It will only biodegrade in the presence of heat, moisture and bacteria, so it will sit in your cupboard pretty much indefinitely, but when the bacteria get to it in compost, that's it. It's gone."

While parts of our oceans have already become inhospitable soups of plastic and plankton, we can at least mitigate the future consequences by making smart individual choices. Experts say the best way to mitigate the damage down the road is by buying less products that contain plastics or plastic packaging, recycling, lobbying for safer bio-degradable plastics, and by purchasing reusable cloth grocery bags among other strategies. 

Posted by Rebecca Sato

Related Galaxy post:

500 Billion Tons of Prehistoric Organic Matter May Massively Accelerate ‘Global Warming’

Sources:

http://www.smh.com.au/news/environment/the-plastic-killing-fields/2007/12/28/1198778702627.html
http://www.cleanup.org.au/au/
http://oceans.greenpeace.org/en/the-expedition/news/trashing-our-oceans
http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/c/a/2007/10/30/MNT5T1NER.DTL
http://www.physorg.com/news112248742.html
http://www.greenpeace.org/usa/

Comments

Thanks for the article. I don't think the average american considers the consequences of their day to day decisions. Now that I have a little education I will do my best to be a better & wiser consumer. This was an eye opener to me. It was always out of sight and out of my mind. But now I know I will be thinking when I go shopping.

Very interesting article.
The sad thing is that there doesn't seem to be any real solution regarding this floating garbage except for not making it worse.
Personally, I have been refusing as much as possible plastic bags when I don't need one or when I have my big reusable Ikea bag for the grocery.
However, even though the right thing to do might be not to buy and raise one's voice to the manufacturer, it's almost impossible to avoid useless plastic packagings. It's especially true for small items where the packaging takes probably up to 5-10 times as much room as what's inside the box (e.g. cables).

"While parts of our oceans have already become inhospitable soups of plastic and plankton, we can at least mitigate the future consequences by making smart individual choices."

No we can't! *I* have never contributed any significant amount of plastic to the ocean. Me and you aren't significant. Me and you and everyone who reads this blog isn't significant. If we cut the amount of plastic by 1/3 (what would be a hugely successful campaign), we'll still be producing a lot of plastic and all the existing plastic will be there too.

Only collective action (governmental, regulatory) can make any kind of dent in something like this.

Anyone have a picture of these floating continents of garbage?

Every time someone mentions the "Continent of Trash" in the pacific, I ask the same question: prove it.

I will believe it. I promise. All you have to do is show me pictures of the trash. Actual pictures of a huge swath of trash.

Share the knowledge. Tell your friends. I think that will make the most change at an individual level. And of course don't needlessly consume plastic (e.g. bottled water..)

It seems there would be some pictures available if this were the case?

Indeed... I was thinking the same thing while I read the article..."why are they having to use artist renderings of what trash in the pacific might look like?" wouldn't it be easier to take a snapshot with a digital camera? Or maybe get fancy and use some of those cool underwater cameras? Since the images are made up, I tend to think the rest is made up too... show me the money shot!

This is very sad. But it's true about plastic being very difficult to recycle, especially in the U.S. residential market where many haulers and processors just can't be bothered with it. We're good in most communities for glass and metals, but we need to improve our percentage of plastics recycled - this is just more proof.

Ostriches don't actually bury their heads in the sand. It's a rural legend.

When Oil was first discovered, much of it was discarded as waste material. Perhaps we can use the long net trawlers to harvest this resource. As soon as the value of refuse plastic becomes commercially feasable, a new industry will be born.

Individuals can make a difference. A wildlife camerawoman was so horrified by the effects of plastic pollution she saw while filming in Hawaii, she persuaded her local community to ban the use of plastic bags. The town took it on and now the idea is spreading across the UK - even big cities are talking about how they could implement it.

More "Greenie"Leftist Propaganda, Designed to scare the plastic diapers off of the "Humans are bad"crybaby crowd!....Incredible claims require incredible proof!...And the "Greenies"that would have you digest this "Island of Lies"can't even produce a picture!....Which by the way , is not Proof!

Well at least it gives the fish a place to hide from predators from above like seagulls...In fact these rafts of rubbish may act like floating reefs to protect fish....let's put a positive spin on this okay?.....now let's bury our heads in the sand agian alright?...

I am at heart an individual who recycles and tries to be environmentally minded, but it bothers me when others that are of this mindset resort to outright LIES!!! Yes there is garbage floating in the oceans but not an island nor a continent! Could we not find it on GOOGLE EARTH? is there no satellites anymore? Do we not have GPS and Digital Camera's? The earth needs us to be aware of our destruction we are causing, not to generate more lies and half-truths.

These aren't actually 'islands' floating above the sea; they are like oil slicks spreading across the surface, but dissolved plastics instead of oil. Satellites cannot photograph the regions from space because the plastics do not reflect light.

To take a photo of this would result in a picture of the ocean. To the observer, it looks the same as it did yesterday, last week or last year. The "sea" is made up of lots of small pieces of plastic. It enters the food chain via the bottom feeders and magnifies its way up to us at the top.

Plastics have only been invented for the last 150 years and only been commercially used for the last 50 years or so. EVERY piece of plastic ever produced still exists today. Knowing that we humans litter with impunity and don't really care where our trash ends up, how then does this get labeled as "leftist greenie propaganda"?

"One plastic patch is estimated to weigh over 3 million tons and covers an area twice the size of Texas."

Texas: 678,051 km2 = 678 051 000 000 m2
Plastic bottle: about 25 grams

3 million tons = 3 000 000 t = 3 000 000 000 000 grams
That divided by 25 grams gives 125 000 000 000 bottles

There is one bottle per 5.4 square meters (6.5 square yards). I wouldn't call that a continent... It certainly won't be impressive looking either, especially when plastic float mostly under water...

This is quite eye opening and shocking. My god what are we doing to our planet?

Found this item on the net.

Would it be possible to send in a small flotilla of incinerators and destroy the trash?

Maybe the U.S. Navy would be kind and generous enough to donate a nuclear power ship to supply power to incinerate the trash?

Ow..... never mind. Just my wishful thinking.

The worlds oceans are MASSIVE!. It will take years before we can fill them up with plastic and other garbage. Lets not worry about a few bottles floating around. As long as we reserve some space for the fish, and we can still sail boats and ships then there is no need to give this problem a second thought.

I read about this in the germs, guns and steel book, very interesting, I also posted this url on my blog, with a few extra comments, www.opentopix.com/topic/other/are-all-the-continents-floating-or-solid

" The United Nations Environment Program says plastic is accountable for the deaths of more than a million seabirds and more than 100,000 marine mammals such as whales, dolphins and seals every year "

We dont eat any of this stuff so it's not really our problem anyway. These animals will probably evolve and learn that it is not good to eat plastic and rubbish. If they would only just stick to eating their normal diet they will be fine. I always thought dolphins were supposed to be clever anyhow.

It's such a shame that people are so ignorant as to dismiss all the evidence in the article as "greenie leftist propaganda" - I wonder whether they even bothered to try to read it. The trouble is it doesn't matter how many others try to take care of the environment, these dinosaurs will go on trashing our world and the fish and animals and then us will all go the way of the original dinosaurs.

Um, Pacific? don't blame the US with its laws, blame the Asian and third world countries with no laws that just dump EVERYTHING in the ocean! Quit blaming the US for everything.


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