Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch | 5 Gyres

The short-term convenience of using and throwing away plastic products carries a very inconvenient long-term truth.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, also described as the Pacific Trash Vortex, is a gyre of marine litter in the central North Pacific Ocean located roughly between 135°W to 155°W and 35°N to 42°N. The patch extends over an indeterminate area, with estimates ranging very widely depending on the degree of plastic concentration used to define the affected area.

The Patch is characterized by exceptionally high concentrations of pelagic plastics, chemical sludge, and other debris that have been trapped by the currents of the North Pacific Gyre. Despite its size and density, the patch is not visible from satellite photography, since it consists primarily of suspended particulates in the upper water column. Since plastics break down to ever smaller polymers, concentrations of submerged particles are not visible from space, nor do they appear as a continuous debris field. Instead, the patch is defined as an area in which the mass of plastic debris in the upper water column is significantly higher than average.

Some of these long-lasting plastics end up in the stomachs of marine birds and animals, and their young, including sea turtles and the Black-footed Albatross. Besides the particles' danger to wildlife, on the microscopic level the floating debris can absorb organic pollutants from seawater, including PCBs, DDT, and PAHs. Aside from toxic effects, when ingested, some of these are mistaken by the endocrine system as estradiol, causing hormone disruption in the affected animal. These toxin-containing plastic pieces are also eaten by jellyfish, which are then eaten by larger fish.

Many of these fish are then consumed by humans, resulting in their ingestion of toxic chemicals. Marine plastics also facilitate the spread of invasive species that attach to floating plastic in one region and drift long distances to colonize other ecosystems.

On the macroscopic level, the physical size of the plastic kills birds and turtles as the animals digestion can not break down the plastic.

Research has shown that this plastic marine debris affects at least 267 species worldwide and a few of the 267 species reside in the North Pacific Gyre.

Great Pacific Garbage Patch - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Plastic Trash Plagues the Ocean

Plastic pollution in the ocean is a serious problem. Our flotsam can choke, entangle, or kill marine life and is dangerous to humans as well.

Once upon a time, the ocean was considered the last place where we could still find an undisturbed environment. This was before the plague of man-made plastic trash flooded the seas. During my travels, I have realized that everything has changed. There is scarcely a place on Earth where plastic litter is not present. Standing on the decks of our research ship, miles away from any large urban areas, we have retrieved plastic from the deepest parts of the sea.

“No more trash in the ocean” must therefore be our highest priority.
The increasing rate of plastic pollution is alarming. The production of plastic doubles every decade, and ever-increasing amounts of trash make their way to the seas—more than 6 million tons per year, according to the UN Environment Program. Ultimately, we are responsible for the plastic footprint in our ocean.

In North America, many people have heard about the Pacific Garbage Patch, which Project Kaisei, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, NOAA, and others have recently studied. In the North Sea, where I have spent time on DEEPWAVE expeditions, the amount of trash found on our beaches is steadily increasing. On average, 712 pieces of refuse are found per 100 meters (or roughly 330 feet) of coastline. This quantity has remained high during the last ten years, despite an international agreement to protect the marine environment in the north Atlantic and reduce the flood of plastic refuse through tighter laws. On our recent Marine Litter Watch Expedition, I saw the problem first-hand as we watched freshly deposited blue garbage bags and their contents float at the surface in shipping routes through the North Sea—the “motorways of the sea.”

There are various sources of plastic litter entering our seas: shipping, tourism, and fishing to name but a few. Countless loopholes in marine law even legalize this. The consequences for the ocean’s inhabitants are devastating. Thousands of sea animals die in agony through the deadly flotsam of our consumer society. There are at least 138 marine species that regularly entangle themselves in this rubbish, including 6 types of sea turtles, 51 sea bird species, and 32 kinds of marine mammals. The problem of marine refuse is therefore interconnected with the loss of biological diversity.

Plastic and other trash travel everywhere the waves and currents carry them, irrespective of political boundaries. Costly and manpower-intensive litter-gathering activities on beaches (such as the Ocean Conservancy’s International Coastal Clean-Up this Saturday) and in the water (such as the Fishing for Litter program) are a practical first step toward a solution. However in the long-term, a serious effort must be made at the source in order to prevent harmful material from reaching the sea at all.

“No more trash in the ocean” must therefore be our highest priority.

Raising public awareness about the problem is critical. If we all start by educating ourselves and sharing the messages with those around us, the issue will receive more attention—and hopefully action.

We are just as endangered by marine litter as the sea inhabitants themselves. None of us can afford to ignore this problem.

Editor’s note: Our guest blogger, Dr. Onno Groß, is a marine biologist, environmental journalist, and president of the Marine Conservation Organization DEEPWAVE.

Plastic Trash Plagues the Ocean | The Ocean Portal | Smithsonian Institution

5 Gyres

Nearly every food product we buy...

Take a look around you- most of what we eat, drink, or use in any way comes packaged in petroleum plastic- a material designed to last forever, yet used for products that we then throw away. This throwaway mentality is a relatively recent phenomenon. Just a generation ago, we packaged our products in reusable or recyclable materials – glass, metals, and paper, and designed products that would last. Today, our landfills and beaches are awash in plastic packaging, and expendable products that have no value at the end of their short lifecycle.

The short-term convenience of using and throwing away plastic products carries a very inconvenient long-term truth. These plastic water bottles, cups, utensils, electronics, toys, and gadgets we dispose of daily are rarely recycled in a closed loop. We currently recover only 5% of the plastics we produce. What happens to the rest of it? Roughly 50% is buried in landfills, some is remade into durable goods, and much of it remains “unaccounted for”, lost in the environment where it ultimately washes out to sea.

Take this challenge

Walk into any grocery or department store and try to fill a grocery cart with individual products that are not made from, packaged, or labeled with plastic. Though some products, like plastic bottles, have a recovery plan, most do not. Even fewer are truly recycled. Plastic lost at sea is an environmental and potential human health hazard. We must demand zero tolerance for plastic pollution. Reducing our consumption and production of plastic waste, and choosing cost-effective alternatives will go a long way towards protecting our seas- and ultimately ourselves.

5 Gyres - Understanding Plastic Pollution Through Exploration, Education, and Action

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