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Is There a Solution to the "Continent of Plastic" that Pollutes the Pacific?

Trashpattern_2 The UN Environment Program estimates that there are 46,000 pieces of plastic litter in every square mile of ocean, and a swirling vortex of trash twice the size of Texas has spawned in the North Pacific.

Plastic bags, once icons of customer convenience, cost more than 1.6 billion barrels of oil per year and leave the environment to foot the bill. Each year the world produces 500 billion bags, and they take up to 1,000 years to decompose. They take up space in landfills, litter our streets and parks, pollute the oceans and kill the wildlife that eat them.

Eco-friendly legislation that targets the production and distribution of plastic bags has been introduced in Israel, San Francisco, Ireland and China. Addiionally, a recent scientific discovery (see below) offers a potential long-term solution to the global plastic crisis.

Since 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? 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't solid 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. The enormous Texas-sized plastic patch is estimated to weigh over 3 million tons.

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.

That said, a solution to the world's plastic crisis may have a possible long-term solution: a Waterloo, Canada teenager, Daniel Burd, has found a way to make plastic bags degrade faster -- in three months, he figures. Burd recently won the top prize at the Canada-Wide Science Fair in Ottawa. He came back with a long list of awards, including a $10,000 prize, a $20,000 scholarship, and recognition that he has found a practical way to help the environment.

Burd’s discovery isolated two strains of bacteria (Sphingomonas and Pseudomonas) that work together to consume polyethelene plastic at record rates, yielding a culture that rendered plastic bags 43% decomposed after six weeks, with the only outputs being water and an infinitesimal amount of carbon dioxide. The system is cheap, energy efficient, and easily scalable for industrial applications. “All you need," Burd says "is a fermenter . . . your growth medium, your microbes and your plastic bags."

Burd's discovery will not solve the whirling vortexes of plastic garbage in the North Pacific, but with an infrastructure in place to harness Burd's innovation, there's hope to prevent future damage to the planet.

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

I'm just a layperson but couldn't the plastic just below the surface of the water be fished out using commercial fish nets? Why not kill two birds with one stone? Put to work some of the unemployed/underemployed fishermen who have been effected by overfishing laws and pay them per pound for the plastic they fish out of the ocean. Talk about a great PR, not to mention practical move for both the environmental and economic problems facing our country! I'm sure there are inherent problems with this idea, the least of which is cost. However this would be money not only well spent on the environment but would work as a economic stimulus package at the same time. Money that would go to the fishermen and directly back into the economy. I would love to hear a response to this.

Daniel, I like the way you think, but I fear that there would be several problems with setting the fishermen loose on the floating plastic. Wikipedia says that humans pulled 86 million tons of seafood out of the water in one year (2000), which is far more than the 3 million tons the plastic is estimated to weigh in that one spot in the North Pacific, so it does sound like it could be done. But I'd bet most of the people fishing were working within a few miles of the coast and I think this "plastic island" is fairly remote. It might be like asking a shopper whose car easily carries 100 pounds of groceries to instead fill it up with 100 pounds of snow from the top of Everest. But again, I really like your thinking on this: make it a win-win. (My own thought was along the lines of breeding crabs with Burd's plastic-eating bacteria in their guts, letting them chase down every scrap of plastic they can find.)

I would like to see a photograph of this plastic.

Here are some images and video of the area.

http://environmentdebate.wordpress.com/2007/11/02/images-video-from-the-north-pacific-gyre/

That really sounds like an interesting idea. I'm not a commercial fisherman but we have a 92ft sportfishing boat and fisherman tend to be pretty easy when it comes to making money. I know we do whatever pays the bills. And that's seasonal. For the environment and money I'd be open to paying my bills all year. My boat just got back from Clipperton Island and some of the pics taken by our passengers were sad. In the pics you see how much heavy plastic has washed up on the island, it's everywhere. The big businesses need to be told to stop with heavy plastic packaging. They should be fined for excessive plastic use. Things like a thumb drive packaged in a plastic super structure. Places like Wal-Mart will have to find another way to prevent theft of small items. Then you could pay someone like the fishermen to clean up.
Fine big business and pay the fishermen. Things like that work for me. Only problem I see is all the fuel used to get out there. Fishermen don't tend to have sail boats.

I wonder if it were collected and partially dried it could be used to generate oil via thermal depolymerization?

Here's a real simple solution. First, you modify a few Dredging ships with wide mouth intakes and set them loose on the trash island. Next, find a radio frequency that will ward off sea life around the ships so we don't suck up too many of them. Of course, there will be some that do get sucked up, but that should help kieep it to a minimum. It may take a few years to complete, But I don't see how that could not work.

Ah its no big deal really, a few bags swirling around in the water? It'll all be alright.

JJ
http://www.Ultimate-Anonymity.com

I don't think there are too many healthy fish hanging around the trash island. Since the island is thousands of miles offshore, you'd need a REALLY big ship, like a cruise ship or something, to make the trip worthwhile. On the other hand, a ship that size would be able carry equipment to better process the trash, via compacting, composing, incinerating... or whatever. I imagine that someone will need to build a special purpose ship just to tackle the problem, but who's gonna step up?

Of course, the big question is, once we pull it out of the ocean, where do we put it all?

Of course, the big question is, once we pull it out of the ocean, where do we put it all?

Of course, the big question is, once we pull it out of the ocean, where do we put it all?

vbs.tv did a really good documentary about this.
it is a great watch:

http://www.vbs.tv/shows.php?show=1154&source=drop

Bioplastics are barely a step in the right direction. They still encourage over packaging and disposable products. Reducing is the most important R there is because both reuse and recycling help to achieve it, but it requires conscious consuming. PLA (bioplastic) cups are extremely hard to compost. I run a compost demonstration site at my university and our bins are about one cubic yard each, much bigger than almost any home composting operation, and we cannot sustain the heat required for the time it takes to break the MF'ers down. I know it's better for pollution, but it is not a solution for our overflowing landfills or the gyre. I am very skeptical that PLA would break down very effectively in the ocean.
As far as the soup is concerned I think it would be a waste of time to try to collect the mess before we had developed a means (such as the Canadian kid's idea) to process what we collect, or else it will just get blown right back out there.

I'm still wondering how the plastic is washing into the oceans. Is it just from littering in cities by the ocean or are trash companies dumping trash into the ocean? I mean, fridges and furniture?

There is a blog regarding clean-up efforts over @ http://www.bringvictory.com

^^ Excellent find enviro! It seems that there is a solution, and those nets are definitely more effective than hand picking. That's a LOT of trash! They pick almost 5 tons every pass!

Industry has been dumping its production costs into our environment long enough. Pass a law to make them pay for clean up and it will quickly stop.
Until Bush gutted it, the Superfund did a lot of good. I'm sure the manufacturers can be traced to every piece of plastic that's out there, ala CSI, and track down the manufacturer and bill them for clean up.
No more free lunch for polluters.

Islands of floating plastic that weigh 3,000,000 tons. It's amazing that no one has capitalized on this opportunity. People pay money for recyclable and reusable materials. That just seems like a cash cow waiting to be milked. And it wouldn't even be hard. Instead of fishing for fish, fish for plastic.

I'm calling bullshit, remember that only some types of plastics float.

also Pics or it didn't happen

Don't worry the way gas prices are rising plastics will soon become a commodity. Thus, this great plastic land mass will become a mining field for entrepreneurs. Or we will be doomed...

"I'm calling bullshit, remember that only some types of plastics float."

The article says that 70% is estimated to have sunk to the ocean floor.

I call bullshit too, It is SOOOOOO BIG, but NO photos. Not one, nada, nix.

I'm getting a little jaded by the wave of cyclicly linked articles on this issue. All of them lead back to the same sound-bites and links from the same NFP - Algalita Marina Research Foundation. It feels like other far more concrete but anecdotal evidence is being used to prop up a theory.

While I totally get the potential of non-degradable plastics... For an aweful lot of PR there seems to be little real artifacts and data to actually support the PR.

In a cynical world does such PR do more harm than good to the cause?

The solution, in the end, is simple:

Reduce consumption, reduce the population, and educate.

Unfortunately most people aren't interested in doing any of the above, so we continue to kill our planet, and ourselves.

Such a shame for an animal with the potential of humankind to be killed by our own ignorance and stubbornness.

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