Friday, January 9, 2009

The Plastic

It can’t be seen from above. It can’t be seen on satellite photos. It can’t be seen from afar. You have to be in the middle of it before you understand where you are. Before you reach your destination, if that is indeed where you are going, you are tantalized by a trail of bread crumbs leading you to a swirling gyre in the Western Pacific.

The bread crumbs consist of things like baggies, bottle caps, condoms, balloons, junk food bags, surfboards, crates, tires, you name it - it’s probably sent a representative courtesy of some recycling reactionary. Trash Island (as it has become known) has been dubbed “the eighth continent” by environmentalists.

Trash Island has several things in common with icebergs. The island is translucent, sits just below the surface of the ocean and carries most of its mass underwater where it can’t be seen.

Unfortunately for every living thing, the Western and Eastern Pacific Garbage Patches have become part of the oceanic landscape. Pick up a piece of plastic and chances are there will be life clinging to it in the form of barnacles and small crabs. The small plastic pieces vie with the plankton for room with the ration being 48:1 plastic leading in the most polluted areas.

Fish, birds, and mammals mistake the small pieces of plastic and the pieces with life starting on them for food (plankton, eggs, jellyfish or other natural food sources).

Now, here is food for thought, something to really chew over and take your time with for all the layers to sink in. Plastics are not biodegradable; but, they are photodegradable. Forever in a landfill looking like the item it went is as; but, forever in the ocean breaking down into dust-like particles that live forever. These dust-like particles are non-detectable to the human eye; but, ingestible by sea mammals, birds, and fish. As of now we have no technology that allows to know if the fish we consume has eaten any of these dust-like plastic particles and; if so, how much. Plastic is plastic no matter how it is ingested. So, if the fish eat the plastic and we eat the fish …At this point, I’m just so very glad I became vegetarian (including fish).

Curtis Ebbesmeyer, an oceanographer and leading authority on flotsam, has tracked the build-up of plastics in the seas for more than 15 years. He compares the trash vortex to a living entity: "It moves around like a big animal without a leash. When that animal comes close to land, as it does at the Hawaiian archipelago, the results are dramatic. The garbage patch barfs, and you get a beach covered with this confetti of plastic," he added.

Image Credit: NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

Professor David Karl, an oceanographer at the University of Hawaii, said more research was needed; but, that there was "no reason to doubt" Algalita's findings. (Algalita’s findings were that there were two linked plastic vortexes not one plus Dr. Moore estimates the vortexes The Western and Eastern Pacific Garbage Dumps to twice the size of the continental United States not twice the size of Texas.)

"After all, the plastic trash is going somewhere and it is about time we get a full accounting of the distribution of plastic in the marine ecosystem and especially its fate and impact on marine ecosystems."

Professor Karl is co-ordinating an expedition with Algalita in search of the garbage patch later this year. With a theory that may seem novel to some, implausible to others or just plain strange to a fringe element: he believes trash island may actually represent a new habitat.

Some things I think are always worth repeating twice. This is one of them - the other come very shortly. Plastic does not biodegrade; but, it does photodegrade. Pieces of plastic 50 years old have been pulled from the ocean. Coincidentally, that‘s about how long we‘ve been making them.

"Every little piece of plastic manufactured in the past 50 years that made it into the ocean is still out there somewhere," said Tony Andrady, a chemist with the US-based Research Triangle Institute.

According to the UN Environment Programme, plastic debris causes the deaths of more than a million seabirds every year, as well as more than 100,000 marine mammals. Syringes, cigarette lighters and toothbrushes have been found inside the stomachs of dead seabirds, which mistake them for food.
Photo courtesy of

Plastic is believed to constitute 90 per cent of all rubbish floating in the oceans. There is another risk to human health. Hundreds of millions of tiny plastic pellets or nurdles – the raw materials for the plastic industry – are lost or spilled every year. These pellets work their way into the sea. Any faithful reader(s) will realize that reason #2 is lurking in the next sentence or two.

These pollutants act as chemical sponges attracting man-made chemicals such as hydrocarbons and the pesticide DDT. From there it is a hop, skip and swallow into the food chain.

"What goes into the ocean, goes into these animals; and, onto your dinner plate. It's that simple," said Dr Eriksen.

Click here just above the dead goldfish for animation of "The Trash Vortex".

I highly recommend this video. Very eyeopening!

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