Plastic Ocean: Renaming the Pacific

Whether you’d like to or not, when you picture a landfill you’d likely see it being on land, right? A landfill is defined as a trash disposal in which the garbage is buried beneath the earth’s layers. On the contrary, according to Charles Moore, founder of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation and captain of the research vessel Alguita, the world’s largest landfill is actually just to the west of us, drifting beneath the ocean’s currents. Floating across the Pacific Ocean, stretching from California to Japan, are two giant masses of plastic and other debris supported by the ocean’s strong whirlwind currents, called the Western and Eastern Garbage Patches. These masses make up the landfill most commonly known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, although it has also been referred to as Plastic Soup or the Trash Vortex. The garbage patch is only one of many that is thought to have been accumulating in the earth’s oceans, yet it is supposedly the largest, loosely estimated to span a range from twice the size of Texas to one larger than the continental United States.

          In 1997, Captain Charles Moore and his crew on the Oceanographic Research Vessel Alguita discovered the garbage patch on their voyage home from a boat race launched in Los Angeles. The crew decided to take a shortcut back to L.A. through the North Pacific Gyre, an area devoid of fisherman and sailors due to a lack of wind in the air and nutrients in the sea. On their journey through the deserted waters, Moore noticed to his horror that they were trekking through hundreds of miles of plastic. “I was confronted, as far as the eye can see, with the sight of plastic,” he said. “In the week it took to cross the subtropical high, no matter what time of day I looked, plastic debris was floating everywhere.”

          The North Pacific Gyre, where Moore and his crew discovered the garbage patch, is one of the world’s five gyres, which are basically spinning vortexes of ocean currents created by light, circular winds and high pressure in the air. The circular motion of the underwater currents sucks everything in like a vacuum, which is why trash and debris have been accumulating in the Pacific Ocean for decades. Moore estimated there to be about 100 million tons of flotsam, which is floating refuse and debris, in the North Pacific Gyre alone. Despite its monstrosity, the garbage patch does not show up in satellite images because it is mostly made up of translucent plastic particles and it drifts underwater at depths as low as 300 feet.  Due to its obscurity, we have only been aware of this hazard for the past two decades, even though it has been estimated to have been growing since the 1950s.

          So how does all this plastic and other flotsam make its way to the Pacific Ocean and what makes plastic so abundant? About 80% of that trash starts its journey on land; the rest is illegally dumped or lost during harsh storms from cargo ships and offshore shipping platforms. Plastic poses a huge problem in marine ecosystems because it is not biodegradable. Instead it is photodegradable, a process in which the sunlight slowly breaks down plastic into smaller pieces called plastic polymers, or “nurdles.” However, because most plastic floats below the ocean’s surface and is cooled down by water, it is deprived of sufficient sunlight and heat, thus inhibiting the degradation process. Imagine how many drinks you consume from plastic bottles in a day, then consider the fact that a 24oz plastic soda bottle can take as long as 450 years to completely decompose.

          Because plastic isn’t biodegradable, it proliferates in the ocean, becoming highly hazardous to marine life. Every day, marine animals such as turtles, seabirds, and fish, get entangled in plastic netting and fishing line. To gruesomely exemplify, a sea turtle was found with its body horribly mutilated by a plastic ring, its shell forming into an hourglass shape around the ring. Aside from the danger of entanglement, marine inhabitants also commonly mistake plastic for food, yet it has no nutritional value and is indigestible, thus making the animal feel full until it eventually dies from malnourishment. One species greatly affected by plastic ingestion is the Laysan Albatross, a North Pacific seabird whose carcasses are commonly found to be filled with bottle caps, lighters, and other plastic materials. In fact, it has been estimated that more than one million seabirds and one hundred thousand marine mammals and turtles die annually from plastic ingestion and entanglement. What adds to its dangers is the way plastic acts as a chemical sponge. Plastic polymers absorb toxic pollutants that can cause hormone disruption when consumed, which can lead to population decline and eventually wipe out an entire species. Needless to say, if you are an omnivore or a pescatarian, there’s a chance you may consume one of these contaminated creatures in your lifetime. Now there’s some food for thought.

          Currently, according to the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, plastic outweighs zooplankton in some areas 6 to 1. However, scientists predict that if we don’t make a change now, the amount of plastic in the ocean will increase tenfold within the next decade. Unfortunately, cleanup of this massive marine dump is not so easy. The vortex flows too steadily and at this point it is too large, so removal of the trash would thus be extremely difficult and costly. Of course, the government needs to control the actions of ship and oil platform crews, but the main focus should be preventing further accumulation of plastic in marine ecosystems. Structural regulations, like installation of screens over storm drains, are somewhat efficient, but they’re not enough. The key solution is source reduction, which could potentially induce source elimination in the long run.
    
          Some regions have already started this process of source reduction. My hometown of San Francisco was the first city to ban plastic grocery bags, and it has launched a growing movement worldwide. Already twenty-three countries across the globe have begun regulating plastic production and consumption by implementing laws to limit or ban the use of certain plastic materials. To take part in this growing movement, here’s what we need to do: drastically reduce or eliminate our consumption of plastic products. When you shop, carry canvas grocery bags, or reuse old plastic bags from home. Try to buy in bulk when you can, and avoid overly packaged products. When you purchase consumable products, choose items in recyclable packaging such as aluminum, glass, or the environmentally-friendly alternative known as bio-plastic, available in select stores. You can also help limit the source of marine garbage by sweeping the sidewalks and picking up your trash at the beach, or even volunteering for or organizing your own beach cleanup.

          So next time you’re asked, “Paper or plastic,” take a moment to consider your answer. Our consumption habits need to change today because there will be more plastic contaminating the ocean tomorrow. Charles Moore reminds us that “except for the small amount that’s been incinerated (…) every bit of plastic ever made still exists.” Remember that once produced, plastic doesn’t disappear; it is destined to accumulate and disrupt the earth’s ecosystems. The is why the fate of marine life rests in our hands.

NOTE TO READERS: Check out this website: http://www.algalita.org/ for all the information you need about Charles Moore and his research missions with the Algalita Marine Research Foundation. Check out this website: http://www.mindfully.org/Plastic/Ocean/Pacific-Garbage-Patch27oct02.htm for a firsthand account from Charles Moore on exploring the plastic ocean.

 Suzanne Stenecker-Dieckman

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