The UN Environment Program estimates that there are 46,000 pieces of plastic litter in every square mile of ocean, and a swirling vortex of trash twice the size of Texas has spawned in the North Pacific.
Plastic bags, once icons of customer convenience, cost more than 1.6 billion barrels of oil per year and leave the environment to foot the bill. Each year the world produces 500 billion bags, and they take up to 1,000 years to decompose. They take up space in landfills, litter our streets and parks, pollute the oceans and kill the wildlife that eat them.
Eco-friendly legislation that targets the production and distribution of plastic bags has been introduced in Israel, San Francisco, Ireland and China. Addiionally, a recent scientific discovery (see below) offers a potential long-term solution to the global plastic crisis.
Since stories have started surfacing more recently, many have wondered, if the rumors are true. Are there really 'continents', or massive floating garbage patches residing in the Pacific? Apparently, the rumors are true, and these unsightly patches are reportedly killing marine life and releasing poisons that enter the human food chain, as well. However, before you start imagining a plastic version of Maui, keep in mind that these plastic patches certainly aren't solid surfaced islands that you could build a house on! Ocean currents have collected massive amounts of garbage into a sort of plastic "soup" where countless bits of discarded plastic float intertwined just beneath the surface. Indeed, the human race has really made its mark. The enormous Texas-sized plastic patch is estimated to weigh over 3 million tons.
But if there is an unfathomably massive collection of plastic junk out there, then why doesn't everyone already know about it, and why aren't we doing something about it?
Well, there are several reasons. First, no one is keen to claim responsibility for these monstrosities, which exists in one of the most remote spots on the planet. It's easier to ignore than to deal with, at least in the short term. Most of the plastic is floating just below the surface where explorers, researchers, and scientists can get a good close-up view, but it is nearly impossible to see the massive quantities of submerged trash in photographs taken from great distances. This makes it easier for naysayers to disregard the problem as a mere myth, in spite of all of the well-documented research to the contrary. Clean up seems nearly impossible at this point, so even those who are well aware of the situation have adopted the famous ostrich cliche of burying their heads in the sand. Even so, this polluted, chemical filled junk is finding it's way onto our dinner tables.
Sadly, marine researcher Charles Moore at the Algalita Marina Research Foundation in Long Beach says there’s no practical fix for the problem. He has been studying the massive patch for the past 10 years, and said the debris is to the point where it would be nearly impossible to extract.
"Any attempt to remove that much plastic from the oceans - it boggles the mind," Moore said from Hawaii, where his crew is docked. "There's just too much, and the ocean is just too big."
The trash collects in this remote area, known as the North Pacific Gyre, due to a clockwise trade wind that encircles the Pacific Rim. According to Moore the trash accumulates the same way bubbles clump at the center of hot tub.
Ian Kiernan, the Australian founder of Clean Up the World, started his environmental campaign two decades ago after being shocked by the incredible amount of rubbish he saw on an around-the-world solo yacht race. He'll says he’ll never be able the wipe the atrocious site from his memory.
"It was just filled with things like furniture, fridges, plastic containers, cigarette lighters, plastic bottles, light globes, televisions and fishing nets," Kiernan says. "It's all so durable it floats. It's just a major problem."
Kiernan says it’s killing wildlife in a vicious cycle. Holding an ashtray filled with colorful pieces of plastic he told The Sydney Morning Herald, "this is the contents of a fleshy-footed shearwater's stomach. They go to the ocean to fish but there ain't no fish - there's plastic. They then regurgitate it down the necks of their fledglings and it kills them. After the birds decompose, the plastic gets washed back into the ocean where it can kill again. It's a form of ghost fishing, where it goes on and on."
A Dutch study in the North Sea of fulmar seabirds concluded 95 per cent of the birds had plastic in their stomachs. More than 1600 pieces were found in the stomach of one bird in Belgium.
The United Nations Environment Program says plastic is accountable for the deaths of more than a million seabirds and more than 100,000 marine mammals such as whales, dolphins and seals every year.
Since his first encounter with the gyre in 1997, Moore created the Algalita Marine Research Foundation to help study the problem. Canadian filmmaker Ian Connacher joined Moore last year to film the garbage patch for his documentary, I Am Plastic.
"The most menacing part is those little bits of plastic start looking like food for certain animals, or the filter feeders don't have any choice, they just pick them up," noted Connacher.
Perhaps an even bigger problem is hiding beneath the surface of the islands of garbage. Greenpeace reports that about 70 per cent of the plastic that makes it to the ocean sinks to the bottom, where it then smothers marine life on the ocean floor. Dutch scientists have found 600,000 tons of discarded plastic on the bottom of the North Sea alone.
A study by the Japanese geochemist Hideshige Takada and his colleagues at Tokyo University in 2001 found that plastic polymers soak up the resilient poisons such as DDT and polychlorinated biphenyls. The researchers found that non-water-soluble toxic chemicals can be found in plastic in levels as high as a million times their concentration in water. As small pieces of plastic are mistaken for fish eggs and other food by marine life, these toxins end up at the dinner table. But even without the extra toxins, eating plastic is hazardous to health.
It is estimated that 80 per cent of plastic found at sea is washed out from the land. The journal Science last year predicted seafood stocks would collapse by 2048 if overfishing and pollution continued. If the seafood stocks collapse, a lot of humans will follow. So, is there anything we can do to prevent this?
Greenpeace says embracing the three Rs - reduce, re-use and recycle - would help tackle the problem. Plastic recycling is lagging well behind paper and cardboard. Part of the reason is because many people aren’t even sure what recycling options exist in their area. But there are other challenges for plastic recycling too. Some plastics release toxic chemicals into the atmosphere, and are more expensive to recycle than to simply create a new product from petrochemicals.
The widespread use of bioplastics could largely reduce the amount of plastic strewn around the world. Traditional petrochemical-based plastics are non-degradable and non-renewable; degradable plastic breaks into smaller pieces in UV light but remains plastic. Then there are two kinds of biodegradable plastic that break down in compost - one from a petrochemical resource, the other from a renewable resource such as corn or wheat, which is known as bioplastic. Bioplastic is by far the most environmentally friendly option. Dr Katherine Dean, of the CSIRO, says corporate firms are now becoming increasingly interested in bioplastics.
"When oil prices soared in 2005, that changed a lot of people's perspective, because bioplastic became quite cost-competitive," she says. "All of a sudden it wasn't just about doing the right thing."
The company Plantic Technologies, has developed biodegradable plastic for everything from food and beverage packaging to medical, agricultural and sporting applications. The chief executive of Plantic, Grant Dow, says once composted, the plastic would become nothing more than carbon dioxide and water.
"For all intents and purposes, it looks like plastic and feels like plastic and does the same thing as plastic in the application," he says.
"It will only biodegrade in the presence of heat, moisture and bacteria, so it will sit in your cupboard pretty much indefinitely, but when the bacteria get to it in compost, that's it. It's gone."
While parts of our oceans have already become inhospitable soups of plastic and plankton, we can at least mitigate the future consequences by making smart individual choices. Experts say the best way to mitigate the damage down the road is by buying less products that contain plastics or plastic packaging, recycling, lobbying for safer bio-degradable plastics, and by purchasing reusable cloth grocery bags among other strategies.
That said, a solution to the world's plastic crisis may have a possible long-term solution: a Waterloo, Canada teenager, Daniel Burd, has found a way to make plastic bags degrade faster -- in three months, he figures. Burd recently won the top prize at the Canada-Wide Science Fair in Ottawa. He came back with a long list of awards, including a $10,000 prize, a $20,000 scholarship, and recognition that he has found a practical way to help the environment.
Burd’s discovery isolated two strains of bacteria (Sphingomonas and Pseudomonas) that work together to consume polyethelene plastic at record rates, yielding a culture that rendered plastic bags 43% decomposed after six weeks, with the only outputs being water and an infinitesimal amount of carbon dioxide. The system is cheap, energy efficient, and easily scalable for industrial applications. “All you need," Burd says "is a fermenter . . . your growth medium, your microbes and your plastic bags."
Burd's discovery will not solve the whirling vortexes of plastic garbage in the North Pacific, but with an infrastructure in place to harness Burd's innovation, there's hope to prevent future damage to the planet.
Posted by Rebecca Sato