When Garbage Doesn’t Die
Continental masses cause ocean currents to develop circular patterns, known as gyres, in each of the three major ocean basins. The North Pacific Gyre, formed by the southern currents off the coast of North America and the northern currents off the coast of Asia, is the world’s largest.
As increasing amounts of plastic trash and debris find their way to sea, this natural phenomenon has become an area of concern. Over time, all floating waste from land migrates to gyres, where it remains trapped — out of sight, out of mind, but not without adverse environmental consequences. The North Pacific Gyre is home to what many are now calling the Eastern Pacific Garbage Patch, a concentration of plastic debris estimated to be 30 feet deep and spread out over an area twice the size of Texas.
The problem: Plastics don’t break down naturally. Instead, they undergo a process of photodegradation, in which sunlight causes the material to disintegrate into increasingly smaller pieces. Water samples taken from the garbage patch show stratified layers of plastic bits, including a cloudy mass of plankton-sized particles. “The gyre contains plastic in all states of degradation,” says Capt. Charles Moore, who first discovered the problem. “It all combines in a sort of soup.”
His was a rude awakening back in 1997. During a yacht race from Southern California to Hawaii, Moore veered off a normal heading and saw an ocean he barely recognized. He notes that within the gyre, “Every time I came on deck to survey the horizon, I saw a soap bottle, bottle cap or a shard of plastic waste bobbing by. Here I was in the middle of the ocean, and there was nowhere I could go to avoid the plastic.”
It was his personal wake-up call, and the Algalita Marine Research Foundation was born to address the perils of plastics pollution. His operational premise: “Industries reaping large profits from the creation of these plastic materials should be tasked with the challenge of recycling.”
While large pieces of plastic debris are a well-documented threat to sea birds and turtles, the new concern is what is happening beneath the water’s surface. Researchers worry that marine animals are mistaking the smallest plastic bits for plankton. As they ingest the plastic, the fear is that these polypeptides are working their way up the food chain. As a result, they may even be finding their way to our dinner tables in the tissue of tuna, mahi mahi and other culinary favorites. Early research suggests that degraded plastics create chemicals that mimic estradiol (a sex hormone). Agents such as bisphenol A, commonly abbreviated as BPA, and a whole gamut of other harmful synthetic polymers contained in plastics have been shown to interfere with critical aspects of metabolic activity in humans.
Challenges to cleaning up the growing mass of plastics in the world’s oceans are many, including the great distance from land, the nebulous nature of this slurry and seasonal rough seas. Despite these setbacks, scientists and environmental groups have proposed a variety of solutions. An obvious solution in the minds of some environmentalists is banning disposable plastic bags and creating awareness about superfluous packaging.
“The best way to stop this problem is to refuse plastics when offered,” says Daniella Russo, executive director and co-founder of the Plastic Pollution Coalition (PPC). In the end, there are those tasked with cleaning up this mess of epic proportions, and to that we have to look to governmental agencies like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to take the lead.
There is also the more strategic and personal means of proactive resolution. We have to collectively reduce our “plastic footprint.” We know that from looking at our landfills. Now we know that from sailing our seas.