I am a scientist and therefore a skeptic by nature. I take everything with a grain of salt and I don’t fall victim to eloquent rhetoric, dramatic photos, or emotional appeals when true substance is lacking. I say this because it is not often that I get so affected by something I’ve only just become aware of. Yesterday on the radio I heard of an online documentary about the legendary Floating Island of Garbage. I always thought it was an urban myth, but apparently these guys went there and documented what they found. I decided to check it out myself, so I went to the website and watched the video. It was a very professional production and the information it revealed was positively shocking.
(there are 12 episodes in all, but you need only watch the first to get the gist of the message; you will probably end up wanting to see them all)
Garbage Island, aka: the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, is not really an Island in the sense of a cohesive landmass. Instead, it is an area of the North Pacific Ocean that is approximately twice the size of Texas and lies in the centre of a large, circular flow of oceanic currents. These currents pass along the west coast of North America and the East Coast of Asia – picking up untold amounts of garbage and pollutants and drawing the stuff into their centre, an area called the North Pacific Gyre.
In the days before synthetic, non-biodegradeable products were manufactured by the millions, the organic refuse that found its way here represented a source of food to the myriad creatures who inhabit this region. From oceanic scavengers to filter feeders one can imagine the evolution of an entire ecosystem based on the forces of Nature that sweep up the refuse of the sea and deposit it here, in the oceanic version of a landfill. If something is biodegradable then, by definition, something is going to want to eat it. Therefore, so long as the human contribution consisted of natural materials (basically everything up to the last two hundred years) our garbage probably didn’t present too much of a problem to the world’s oceans.
And then along came plastics.
Now, if you are like me you maybe thought that the worst thing about plastic was that it didn’t go away. Bottles and nozzles, hard hats and flowerpots, broom handles and ballpoint pens…I imagined that these items would just remain in their manufactured forms until some time, perhaps centuries from now, when future archeologists would dig it up and wonder at the sheer folly of our disposable culture. But no, the truth is much more frightening than that.
Because you see, it turns out that many plastics are photodegradable. Which means that while floating along on the ocean’s currents exposed to all that sunlight they are broken down into slimy, sticky puddles of plastic taffy that look remarkably like jellyfish to the detriment of sea turtles or basically anything that swims into it, including the jellyfish themselves:
Yet it gets worse… many plastics also degrade into tiny plastic fragments that look somewhat like confetti. The waters of the Gyre are so littered with the stuff that the ratio of plastic particles to plankton is over 6:1 (and in some areas upwards of 1000:1). Just imagine a filter feeder taking a nice mouthful of ocean water and getting ten times more plastic than nutrients in its belly.
I could go on, but watch the video and you’ll come to the same point I’m at now…
…how can we even begin to fix this?
My first thought after watching was “I am NEVER using plastic again!”. But seriously folks, that is not an easy thing to do. The computer I’m typing on right now is made of plastic. My glasses have plastic in the frames. I’m not sure it would even be possible to replace everything in my life that is made with plastic (my car, for example). While I applaud the efforts of bloggers like Fake Plastic Fish and Life Less Plastic the sad reality is that this problem – the toxic plastic garbage wasteland of the North Pacific gyre – is not going to go away because a few of us choose to use stainless steel tupperware or cloth grocery bags. The problem is not only global (want another freaky thought? there are four other oceanic Gyres on Earth…) , but goes to the very nature of our society and its dependence on a material that is non-biodegradable and unmanageable as waste. It’s bad enough that we Westerners created this stuff and then became totally dependent on it, but now we are exporting our disposable plastic lifestyle to countries that lack curbside recycling and waste management facilities.
But even if we were to recycle every piece of plastic manufactured there would still be the issue of garbage (ever seen what happens to the area around a McDonalds restaurant, despite the presence of multiple waste bins?). There’s also those darned nurdles – the tiny plastic pellets that are melted down and then coloured and moulded into the final product – which escape from train cars and truck beds, blowing in the wind like dust, and collecting all over the earth’s surface including the oceans.
I think what needs to happen is we need to make this issue so well-known that people raise enough of a stink about it to prompt some change. People need to start viewing plastic the same way we view non-dolphin friendly tuna. Our society needs to invent/find materials to replace plastic that can be disposed of responsibly and which do not pose such a threat to life on this planet.
In the meantime, I’m going to do my bit by trying to cut all unnecessary plastic out of my life (starting with my shampoo). I have written in the past about being plastic bag free; Google around and you’ll come up with many more suggestions and tips. And if you feel overwhelmed, as I did when I first watched that documentary, just take a deep breath and say to yourself “One step at a time”… Spread the word, and hopefully one day the ecological horror show that is Garbage Island will become simply one more embarrassing episode of human history that we somehow managed to survive without going extinct.