A potent symbol of large scale waste and consumer greed has been making the media rounds lately. This symbol is a physical and hard to ignore: the "away" of our throwaway society turns out to be, in part, a giant patch of broken plastic bits swirling around the Pacific Gyres in an area that has been dubbed "The Great Pacific Garbage Patch." The Pacific Garbage Patch has appeared lately in the pages of the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the New Yorker, on Bill Maher, and on Oprah's Earth Day show.
It is fitting that the Pacific Garbage Patch has finally achieved media fame, as its implications are as startling as our melting ice caps and stranded polar bears. The Pacific Garbage Patch was named, over 15 years ago, by Seattle oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer when he predicted the phenomenon from his studies of known oceanic currents and their effects on the dispersal of a cargo of rubber ducks lost at sea during a Pacific storm. In 1997, Charles Moore confirmed the existence of the Eastern Pacific Garbage Patch, lying halfway between California and Hawaii, and covering an area that he described as 2-3 times the size of Texas. The Eastern Pacific Garbage Patch is, however, part of a larger oceanic system called the "North Pacific Gyre," an area approximately twice the size of the United States. The North Pacific Gyre is centered around two natural whirlpool currents that create a giant dog-bone shaped area, and all of it is a diffuse plastic soup.
Moore, a yachting enthusiast, was returning to Long Beach from a race in Hawaii and decided to take the direct route home. His return took him through the rarely traveled area of the North Pacific Gyre, and there he discovered, to his horror, that he was traveling through a giant plastic soup for an entire week. An heir to the Hancock Oil fortune, Captain Moore realized that what he was seeing was the unfortunate consequence of throw away petrochemical products (5 to 10% of every barrel of oil goes into the manufacturing of plastics). Moore felt compelled to do something about his discovery. In 1994, Moore had founded the Algalita Marine Research Foundation (Algalita MRF, named after the giant kelp called Alga Marina in Spanish, that was disappearing from the California coastline) to study threats to the ocean environment and to begin restoration efforts. Now Moore focused his energies on plastic marine debris, working with volunteer scientists and educators who studied how tons of trash wash from our coastline and who made numerous trips with him back into the gyre, producing peer-reviewed scientific articles on the phenomenon, its scope (which apparently expands proportionally with the production of plastic waste) and the crucial plastic-to-zooplankton ratio (the plastic is winning by a margin of 6:1).
Currently, Dr. Marcus Eriksen and Anna Cummins, both of the Algalita MRF, are biking the entire West Coast, from Vancouver, British Columbia to Tijuana, Mexico carrying samples of the gyre water, swirling with plastic debris, to deliver into the hands of educators and legislators whom they wish to recruit in an effort to stop this environmental disaster. Eriksen and Cummins will arrive for a crucial visit to the State Capitol, and hopefully will meet with Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, on May 21.
The gyre samples were collected by Eriksen and Cummins during Algalita MRF's 2008 voyage across 4,000 miles of the North Pacific. On this voyage, Algalita MRF documented a doubling in the density of plastic particles since Moore's first published findings in 1999, as well as new evidence of plastic ingestion by lantern fish. Surfacing only at night to feed on zooplankton, these small fish are ingesting the plastic particles they find floating on the ocean surface. Of the 671 fish Algalita MRF collected in their night trawls, 35% had plastic particles in their stomachs. The record holder, a 2.5 inch long lantern fish, had consumed 84 pieces of plastic. Making up 50% of the oceans fish biomass, these lantern fish are a primary food source for Salmon, Tuna, Mahi Mahi, and other fish commonly eaten by humans, raising the obvious question: are chemicals from plastics getting into our sushi?
Alarmed by their findings, Dr. Eriksen, Cummins and marine scientist Joel Paschal built a raft dubbed "junk" entirely out of plastic bottles and other "junk," including the fuselage of a Cessina airplane that served as its cabin. With Cummins maintaining ground support, Eriksen and Paschal traveled from Long Beach to Hawaii in this small vessel, battling cyclones and, most importantly, making startling new scientific discoveries about the human health consequences of the plastic marine debris. With food supplies dwindling, Eriksen and Paschal caught a Rainbow Runner, a commercially harvested fish found on dinner plates around the world. Cutting open the belly of this fish to clean it for cooking, they discovered 17 pieces of plastic inside the fish. The effects of these plastics are twofold: Not only do they fill the stomachs of the fish with non-digestible material, much of which will never be excreted, thereby starving them of real nutrition, but the plastics are also potent delivery mechanisms for toxins that can enter the fish that we consume. Plastics serve as powerful sponges, absorbing toxins in the surrounding water (such as PCBs, partially burned hydrocarbons, like oil drops from cars, and pesticides, like DDT) and accumulating the toxins in concentrations up to one million times greater than those in the surrounding seawater. Algalita MRF has documented that our plastic waste, and the toxins it concentrates, have entered our food chain.
The media attention to the Pacific Garbage Patch has been sidetracked, in many instances, by coverage of de Rothchild heir David de Rothchild's plans to build a multimillion dollar vessel for the purpose of sailing into the gyre to show that the plastic problem is about recovery and recycling. Although any media is good media for the Pacific Garbage Patch especially, the attention on the uncompleted vessel of de Rothchild seems to miss the boat when so many successful trips have already been made and so much valuable scientific research has been collected. Also, both environmental and human health considerations support limitations on throw away plastics, like bottles and bags, that de Rothchild seems unprepared to accept. While it is crucial that the public comes to understand the final destination of our disposable plastics, the time has clearly come to stop using disposable petrochemical products just like we stopped using the pesticide DDT, the remains of which are still endangering our marine ecosystem. At the same time, in a world that is starting to demand sustainable solutions, the plastic and disposable goods industries need to adapt for survival by providing innovative alternatives to petrochemical products that will truly biodegrade, even at sea.
Back to the research expeditions of the Algalita MRF. This coming June, Charles Moore will undertake his longest voyage yet -- a 3 stage, 4 month journey that begins with a 6 week voyage as far as the international date line, collecting both gyre samples and more lantern fish. Stage 2 is a two week loop, in partnership with Peligro Pictures, Billabong and ScubaDrew Video, inviting celebrity surfers on board the Billabong Seaplane to help spread the word about plastic marine debris when they rendezvous with the research vessel in the middle of the gyre. (See http://algalita.org/09-north-pacific-gyre-exploration.html) Then in January of 2010, Eriksen, Cummins and Paschal will venture to the Atlantic Gyre where they expect to find more of the same swirling plastic soup. After his many trips to the North Pacific Gyre, including his latest on the Junk, Dr. Eriksen is more convinced than ever that the solution to the plastic marine debris problem is to stop the consumption of single-use plastics.
There is no way to clean up the plastics that poison our oceans. Straining the water, if it were even possible on such a grand scale, would endanger all the sea life in those waters. Recycling plastics is not the solution. Plastic bottles do not reappear as plastic bottles, they only get down-cycled to lesser quality plastic fill for other uses, ensuring the creation of more plastic that will never leave the planet. The answer is to stop consuming single-use, throw-away plastics. The "away" in throw-away plastics is always, eventually, our landfills and our oceans, where it will remain forever. We must recall that the 3 Rs are in order of preference: First REDUCE, then REUSE and only as a last resort RECYCLE. This is an important message that could save our seas and ourselves. The alternatives to single-use plastics are readily available and should rightfully become media darlings along with the brilliant scientists who are exploring the plastic marine debris problem. REUSABLES: reusable water bottles, bags, eating utensils and packaging, could save the planet from being consumed by waste, while in the case of seafood, REUSABLES could save us from consuming our own waste.
Lisa Boyle is an environmental attorney and a Board Chair at Heal the Bay
See www.algalita.org for updates on research and educational efforts regarding plastic marine debris
See www.bringyourown.org for information about Reusables.