Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch

Here is a blog post from Brad Pollina, who presented this at the EcoAction meeting last night:

The Great Pacific Garbage patch is a swirling mass of plastic debris located in the central North Pacific Ocean. Earth’s ocean currents carry plastic trash from all over the world to this area, known as the North Pacific Gyre. Current estimates of its extent range from the size of Texas to the size of the continental USA. Either way, it’s huge and it’s growing by the minute.

The debris field is composed of about 80 percent trash from land and 20 percent trash from cruiseships, oil rigs, cargo tankers and the like. To give some perspective, humans produce about 200 billion pounds of plastic each year, 20 billion pounds of which wind up in the oceans. Greenpeace estimates that 10 percent of the plastics produced each year ultimately wind up in the Great Pacific Garbate Patch. With that in mind, it becomes clear that a fair portion of plastic thrown away each year winds up in the garbage vortex, resulting in a debris field of about 3.5 million tons of plastic. In most areas, estimates put the depth of the plastic at about 90 feet.

And it doesn’t just sit there. Plastic waste doesn’t biodegrade- it only photodegrades- meaning it gets broken into smaller and smaller pieces without ever actually decomposing. This means once it’s in the ocean, it stays there forever.

Photodegraded plastic poses a constant threat to marine life and gets carried to shore by ocean currents, littering beaches with trash. One of the major problems is also the release and absorption toxins into the water.

Materials like polystyrene, which we know as styrafoam, release harmful chemicals into the water which become absorbed by other types of plastic debris. From there, animals often mistake the contaminated materials for food and thereby introduce these toxins into our food chain.

Estimates hold that 267 animal species worldwide are affected by the garbage patch’s debris and about 1 million die each year by consuming and getting caught up in the trash.

So what can we do?

Remember 80 percent of ocean trash comes from land. Moreover, single use plastics are filling our landfills and much of this waste is winding up in the ocean. That includes plastic water bottles, cutlery, food containers, and plastic bags.

On a personal level, reusing plastics and reducing your personal use will help halt the growth of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. This means, for starts, using non-disposable food packaging, shopping with cloth bags, and drinking from reusable water bottles.

Next time you have the option to use something disposable, think twice and spread the word that it could wind up in the ocean.

Influencing policy at the local government level is also a high priority. The direct link between solid waste and the pacific garbage patch can’t be stressed enough, so local ordinance changes outlawing plastic bags, styrafoam, and other non-biodegradable materials represents a step in the right direction.

We need to encourage and pressure our local governments to enact plastic bag and polystyrene bans- it’s already happening around the country and the movement away from plastic disposables is gaining speed. Many towns have even started burning waste in clean energy facilities, which helps ensure these materials can’t wind up in the garbage patch.

On the national level, this issue is roughly where global warming was 10 years ago. It hasn’t received much international attention but what the Project Kaisei team has done is inspiring and should set the trend for handling this issue.

We need to contact our Congress people and the EPA to encourage them to devote funds to studying this. The more exposure we bring to this looming problem, the better. Not many people know about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch right now so we need to spread awareness if we expect to ever properly address it.

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