Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Plastic Atlantic Plastic Nightmare

You've likely already heard of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.   This huge mass of plastic garbage in the North Pacific, discovered by Charles Moore in 1997, has been much discussed online and in other media.
 
Need we on the East Coast feel left out?  No, there's plenty of plastic trash in the Atlantic, too. It is now known there are five major mostly-plastic garbage patches, or gyres, in oceans around the world. 

Ours is called the North Atlantic Gyre.  It is our very own creation, the result of throw-aways from our everyday lives.  The most common items in gyres are bottle caps.  Other ingredients include plastic bags, plastic packaging, tampon applicators, cigarette lighters, toothbrush handles, plastic cutlery, etc.  Through habit and inattention, we have recorded in the ocean a veritable inventory of our plastic daily lives.

There is no such thing as throwing something "away."  It's all still there.  In the Pacific, baby birds die, stomachs distended with plastic.  In the Atlantic 1/3 of fish test positive for plastic particles.  How long will it be until we hear that island and coastal people who rely on the ocean for food are full of plastic too?  And then there are the harmful chemicals like bisphenol A (BPA) that leach out of some plastic products.  Via our gyres we have in effect decided to store these toxins too in our oceans.

So far no consensus exists on what we can do about our plastic ocean.  Many think it is impossible to clean up such a huge problem.  Others suggest that, due to currents and gyre rotation, up to 50% of gyre contents are deposited on beaches within three years.  If so, beach cleanup IS gyre cleanup, according to 5 Gyres.  

Whether or not their view is correct, participation in a beach cleanup is highly recommended.  The list of items found on beaches is uncannily similar to the contents of gyres.  Cleanups occur yearly in September world-wide, including many Metro NY locations.  Picking up & cataloging plastic trash from a beach that could be a place of beauty is a sobering, revealing, and unforgettable experience.

Measured against what we're doing to the ocean, the convenience we gain from using plastic packaging, and from carrying our produce home from the co-op in $30,000-worth of plastic bags a year, is simply not worth it.  ("Convenience will kill you," goes the all-too-apt line in this fine short music video.)

We need to get serious yesterday, or, since that's not possible, now, about eliminating our use of disposable plastics.  Otherwise one day—here comes the nightmare—our oceans filled with plastic, we may try in vain to protect ourselves from plastic rain, and, like the baby albatrosses, we may end up stuffed so full of plastic we're unable to take in real nourishment.

photo by Kent K. Barnes/kentkb on flickr

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