You may be aware of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Yep, it actually has a name. In fact, it has two names. It’s also known as the Pacific Trash Vortex. Actually it’s two vortexes, each the size of Texas. It . . . uh . . . theyare made up mostly of plastic. In case you don’t know, unlike seaweed, we don’t get plastic from the ocean. We get plastic from factories. So what’s responsible for the garbage patch(es)? Got a mirror? Yeah, it’s you. And us.
If in your mind’s eye you are picturing Jack in the Box containers and synthetic rope floating around, for the most part you would be wrong. While some of the rubble is full-sized trash, plastic breaks down into very small pieces in the ocean—so small, in fact, that much of it is barely visible.
Oceans all over the world contain plastic particles. But a study released last month shows that waters around Antarctica, sometimes referred to as the Antarctic Ocean or the Southern Ocean, also contain plastic debris. The once-thought-of-as-pristine Antarctic Ocean . . . isn’t. Humanity’s giftfor soiling its own home apparently has no bounds. And there are more of us coming. Over the long haul we are becoming more affluent. That means we’ll be accumulating more plastic . . . and throwing it away, unless, that is, we figure out ways to reduce our penchants for waste.
Although the exact proportions are unknown, most of the garbage in the world’s oceans—perhaps 80 percent—comes from land. Most of the rest comes from ships, especially cruise ships.
Scientists from the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, in cooperation with the TARA Foundation, cruised the world for two-and-a-half years aboard a 118-foot schooner. The expedition, part of a program named Tara Oceans, and under the auspices of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), had a principal objective to “enable scientists to study little-known aspects of ocean ecosystems including planktonic life and the effect of global warming on coral reefs and the marine life dependent upon them.”
Scientists plow ahead, studying the full impacts of all this pollution on mammals, birds, fish and other sea life that ingest all this garbage or become entangled in large pieces, like ropes, nets, six-pack holders and the like.
Just to complicate things a bit, there are little-known relationships between marine microbes and the plastics they colonize. Scientists have yet to study them in depth.
Had enough? Too bad. Scientists are also looking into human health risks associated with plastics, plastic additives like BPA (used in food can lining, reusable food containers, and beverage bottles), and toxins like DDT that plastics may absorb and then carry into the food web (remember the fishes and other animals that can ingest small pieces of plastic). As far as cleanup goes, the smaller particles are virtually impossible to deal with. The larger debris are easier to deal with in a mechanical sense. But while ships are intentionally dumpoing as we speak, there seems to be no international will to expend resources — either financial, scientific, or environmental — on saving what’s left of the oceans’ state of nature.
The name of our book is Enough of Us. With reports like this we wonder if we should have titled it Too Many of Us.
We simply cannot wait for the schooner (named – guess what – Tara!) to report on its subsequent trip to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
By the way, there is also a garbage patch in the North Atlantic. But we’ll wait until another blog post for that one.