What Should I Know about Earth’s Floating Islands of Garbage?
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Must we fill every ocean on the planet with plastic?
Contrary to popular belief the Great Pacific Garbage Patch can’t be seen from space but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a big freaking mess. Roughly located between California and the Hawaiian Islands, this floating layer of refuse has been called “Gilligan’s Island,” because it’s like that inane sitcom from the 1960s that simply won’t go away.
Comprised mostly of plastic, say about 80 per cent, Gilligan’s Island could be twice the size of the state of Texas, more than 30 feet deep and weigh over three million tons. It’s been growing ten-fold every decade since 1950 and isn’t going away unless someone removes it. There are other floating garbage patches too and they won’t simply disappear either.
Let’s study these floating islands of garbage and see what can be done to either greatly reduce them in size or eliminate them. Please keep reading!
Discovery of Garbage Patches
The earth has five major gyres and the North Pacific Gyre created what has been called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP). Gyres are produced by the earth’s various currents, which move in either a clockwise or counterclockwise fashion, in the process creating a central area where the water, relatively calm, draws in matter from the outside. In subtropical areas, this central area is called the doldrums or horse latitudes. (In the days of sailing ships, Spanish sailors would lighten their ships and/or preserve water by throwing overboard their horses, hence the name.)
The existence of the GPGP was predicted in the late 1980s and identified when oceanographer Charles J. Moore rode a boat through the area in 1997. In an essay for Natural History magazine, Moore wrote:
I was confronted, as far as the eye could see, with the sight of plastic. It seemed unbelievable, but I never found a clear spot. In the week it took to cross the subtropical high, no matter what time of day I looked, plastic debris was floating everywhere: bottles, bottle caps, wrappers, fragments.
According to a study made by Moore in 1999, there is six times more plastic in the GPGP than zooplankton, tiny animals at the bottom of the ocean’s food chain. The waters off California have shown similar plastic pollution. Back then, these numbers shocked many oceanographers.
Effects of Pollution on Humans
Yes, indeed, something fishy is going on, because the earth’s marine creatures are ingesting plastic at an alarming rate. And, of course, once fish eat plastic, the plastic either passes to the other marine creatures eating them or to people at the top of the food chain. Many marine creatures die after consuming plastic too, as their digestive tracts can’t digest plastic and large chunks of plastic can also cause lethal blockages.
As plastic degrades in the water, succumbing to a process known as photodegradation, it breaks into smaller and smaller pieces. This disintegration releases toxic chemicals into the environment. These chemicals include Bisphenol A, PCBs and derivatives of polystyrene, all of which either are or can be harmful to humans. Moreover, all floating debris can absorb pollutants from water, endangering animals and people as it continues floating about.
Two Garbage Patches in the Pacific Ocean
According to the article “Pacific Plastic Trash Island” on the website for The Chic Ecologist, there are actually two trash islands in the Pacific Ocean, one west of California and the other east of Japan. These floating islands aren’t easily seen from the air or satellite images because the trash is suspended in water below the surface, prompting some people to claim they don’t exist.
To reduce the size of these trash islands, the website recommends eliminating the use of disposable plastic bottles and bags, replacing them with reusable metal or canvas containers. As for the trash that’s already out there, it suggests using floating recycling plants so the plastic could be recycled, or simply recover the trash and use it to create a “utopian island.”
North Atlantic Garbage Patch
The Atlantic Ocean has it own garbage patch as well. Located within the North Atlantic Gyre, this layer of debris, much of it plastic, was first documented in 1972. Roughly equivalent to the size of the Sargasso Sea, a becalmed area of the ocean created by the aforementioned gyre, this patch is estimated to be hundreds of square kilometers in size and may contain as much as 200,000 pieces of debris per square kilometer.
As this area is the approximate location of the so-called Bermuda Triangle, scene of many marine and aerial disasters throughout history, perhaps this is nature’s way of getting even with people for dumping trash that ends up in the Triangle!
How Great Is the Problem?
Per the article, “Ten Million Tons of Trash Floating in the Pacific,” written by Frosty Wooldridge, found on the website for Independent News, every hour humans toss 2.5 million pieces of plastic into the oceans; and 46,000 pieces of plastic float on every square mile of ocean! Wooldridge also goes on to write that many of our beaches are heavily littered with pieces of plastic. Even beaches of the remote Galapagos Islands suffer from plastic pollution.
Moreover, plastic gill nets and monofilament lines wreak havoc on water dwelling animals, essentially strangling them to death. It appears parts of the world are becoming a plasticized refuse dump toxic to most living things.
Even if we got our hands on this plastic pollution, what could we do with it?
Since plastic is not biodegradable, burying it in a landfill works fine as long as water doesn’t get into the plastic and cause the chemicals in it to leach into the environment. Plastic can be burned too, but the resultant smoke isn’t healthy to breathe.
Is Recycling the Answer?
Wooldridge suggests that a solution to the problem would be to create a 10 to 20 cent deposit on all plastic containers sold anywhere in the world. This would create an economic incentive to return the plastic to recycling facilities rather than dump it into landfills and also make it profitable to collect what’s already floating around in the world.
Please keep in mind that the state of California already offers a deposit return on all plastic bottles. For instance, number one plastic (or clear plastic), can have a refund value of as much as one dollar per pound. But most states don’t offer refund value on plastic containers; that is, they haven’t passed “bottle bills” as California, Oregon and other states have done. (One reason states haven’t passed a bottle bill is because this deposit adds cost to the items.)
Clearly, if all states passed bottle bills, this would almost certainly help limit the expansion of floating garbage patches in the world’s oceans.
The size of the GPGP and other floating garbage patches is debatable, because we haven’t established parameters for identifying and measuring them. All we know for certain is they’re out there and growing bigger by the minute, and they aren’t going anywhere unless somebody sucks up the trash and moves it to landfills and/or recycles it.
What average citizens can do about the problem is make sure they dump all their plastic waste into trash cans, assuming the contents of which are eventually dumped into public landfills. At least this will keep the plastic out of waterways and eventually the oceans. Recycling plastic can also help reduce the problem as well. So if you aren’t recycling plastic, please start doing so right away.
Of course, the garbage in the oceans right now will eventually have to be removed, and governments will have to get involved in this process, because the removal process will be very expensive. Then again, private enterprise may find a way of making money from its removal. At any rate, vote for legislators and candidates who advocate cleaning up the earth’s floating garbage patches and recycling all manner of plastic waste. Let's hope Gilligan's Island will eventually disappear forever!
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