Imagine getting in your car and driving from New York to Los Angeles. As soon as you get to Los Angeles, imagine turning right around and heading straight back to New York. Now imagine that the entire time you are driving, you are surrounded by nothing but a plasma of garbage. Not just floating washing machines or bikes, just a never ending soup of small bits of garbage sludge. Above, below, all around. 100 million tonnes of nothing but human garbage – castoffs, waste. And it’s toxic. Deathly. Welcome to the ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch’ – a massive swirling vortex of garbage in the Pacific Ocean.
Primarily plastics (95%), the ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch’ is contained within the North Pacific Gyre. This is actually composed of two major gyres, one between Japan and Hawaii, and another between Hawaii and California, connected through the Subtropical Convergence Zone (An oceanic gyre is a rotating system of currents that swirl the water in a large, roughly circular shape). The rotational movement of the gyres draws garbage in, and the lack of strong winds keeps it trapped almost stationary in the centre. The movement of the waters breaks down the plastics, so that most of the garbage is composed of tiny little bits, rather than large objects. This actually renders the GPGP invisible to satellite imagery, as the pieces are too small, and additionally held just below the surface. Most of the garbage comes from land: 80% of marine debris is discharged from land, primarily via urban run-off (the other 20% comes from ships). This makes it our garbage. The stuff you and I throw out on a regular basis.
The GPGP was accidentally discovered by Cpt. Charles Moore on an expedition in 1997, though its existence had been predicted as far back as the 1980’s by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association in America. While its true size cannot be truly measured due to the miniscule size of the debris and sludge, estimates range as high as 100 million tonnes of debris, and up to twice the length of the continental USA. It has been a gradual accumulation of over a hundred years of poor environmental practices by all countries.
Most of the problem is the plastic. Plastic is composed of petroleum, and unfortunately not biodegradable. While theoretically a very useful product, the massive environmental disadvantages to plastics are starting to overtake the decades of successful aggressive marketing by plastic companies. Plastics take thousands of years to degrade, and depending on the type, contain very high amounts of toxic chemicals, including DEHP’s, adipates, phthalates, bisphenol A, vinyl chloride, etc. etc. In addition to containing these dangerous chemicals, when burned plastics also release other toxic chemicals and fumes.
Well, if the debris is just floating in a relatively unoccupied part of the ocean far from any humans, why does it matter?
Because it breaks down into a toxic sludge of plastic that pollute and contaminate the ocean, carried on currents slowly across the planet.
Because animals eat, and die from eating, the garbage (Fish absorb the pollutants, and bird carcasses are found with all sorts of garbage they have eaten in the ocean – it has been estimated up to over a million sea-birds, and one hundred thousand marine mammals and turtles die yearly from plastic ingestion).
Because plastics are not biodegradable – meaning that we can’t just close our eyes and ears. The garbage is there to stay until we do something about it.
And it’s not the only one. Similar patches exist in the Atlantic and Indian oceans, up to 5 across the world. All of which are growing. This isn’t a problem to be solved only by the United States, or by China. This swirling pile of crap is hundreds of miles from any nation’s boundary. It belongs to us all – the plastic bag you callously tossed in the garbage bin ended up there. The plastic toys you played with as a child and threw out ended up there. The wrapper you dropped on the street last week is there. Every decision we make as consumers and citizens of the planet contributes to this. Imagine if you purchased a lovely oceanfront property, but had to look at millions of tons of debris instead. I bet we’d care more if we had to see it – out of sight, out of mind can NO LONGER apply to our planet. Let’s wake up and stop with the plastics! If we cut down, or even cut out our plastic usage, it won’t be discharged into the oceans.
Things you can do:
Minimalize your plastic usage – don’t use water bottles, stop using sandwich bags. Switch to re-usable containers and re-use them. And don’t just buy them : you can re-use yogurt containers, butter containers, etc. Buy re-usable grocery bags (of the cloth kind). Most of our plastic usage comes from food and home products – think about it!
My number one pet peeve – plastic bags for your vegetables at the grocery store! Do you really think the dirtiest part of your vegetable’s trip is from the shelf to your house? Get real. You should be washing your fruits and vegetables for pesticides anyway (a whole other story).
Toys – stop buying so many cheap, plastic throw-away toys for kids! They don’t need them. Buy them hand-crafted wooden toys or metal instruments that can be passed down.
Cleaners – stop buying bottles of dangerous chemicals and cleaners. A bucket of hot water with baking soda and vinegar, a rag, and some elbow grease can clean almost anything.
At the end of the day, it comes down to common sense over convenience. If it wasn’t made by or found in the earth, chances are, it’s not good! Natural products. Woods, metals, local. Its up to us to fix this world gone wrong!
Let’s educate ourselves, and take action.