Great Pacific Garbage Patch
Plastic Turning Vast Area of Ocean into Ecological Nightmare Charles Moore/Santa Barbara News-Press 27oct02
Plastics, like diamonds, are forever.
If plastic doesn’t biodegrade, what does it do? It photo-degrades – a process in which it is broken down by sunlight into smaller and smaller pieces, all of which are still plastic polymers, eventually becoming individual molecules of plastic, still too tough for anything to digest
For the last 50-odd years, every piece of plastic that has made it from our shores to the Pacific Ocean has been breaking down and accumulating in the central Pacific gyre. Oceanographers like Curtis Ebbesmeyer, the world’s leading flotsam expert, refer to it as the great Pacific Garbage Patch.
The problem is that it is not a patch, it’s the size of a continent, and it’s filling up with floating plastic waste. My research has documented 6 pounds of plastic for every pound of plankton in this area.
My latest three-month round-trip research voyage, to be completed in Santa Barbara this week, got closer to the center of the garbage patch than before and found levels of plastic fragments that were far higher for hundreds of miles.
We spent weeks documenting the effects of what amounts to floating plastic sand of all sizes on the creatures that inhabit this area Our photographers captured images of jellyfish hopelessly entangled in frayed line, and transparent filter feeding organisms with colorful plastic fragments in their bellies.
As we drifted in the center of this system, doing underwater photography day and night, we began to realize what was happening A paper plate thrown overboard just stayed with us; there was no wind or current to move it away. This is where all those things that wash down rivers to the sea end up.
Albatross (above); and remains of adult with gut full of plastic (below). Notice the wide variety of bottle caps in this one. With smaller animals, more damage is done by smaller pieces. The plastic goes down the gullet quite easily. But since it is not digested, as in the original plan for all life, it gets stuck before exiting the stomach. There it sits to block the entry and digestion of legitimate food. Even the tiniest of pieces can cause blockages.
albatross photos: Cynthia Vanderlip
Sometimes, the central cell of this system drifts down over the Hawaiian Islands. That is when Waimanalo Beach on Oahu gets coated with blue-green plastic sand. Farther to the northwest, at the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve, monk seals, the most endangered mammal species in the United States, get entangled in debris, especially cheap plastic nets lost or discarded by the fishing industry.
Ninety percent of Hawaiian green sea turtles nest here and eat the debris, mistaking it for their natural food, as do laysan and black-footed albatross. Indeed, the stomach contents of laysan albatross look like the cigarette lighter shelf at a convenience store they contain so many of them.
It’s not just entanglement and indigestion that are the problem, however. There is a darker side to plastic fragment pollution. As these fragments float around in the ocean, they accumulate the poisons we manufacture for various purposes that are not water-soluble.
It turns out that plastic polymers are sponges for DDT, PCBs and nonylphenols—oily toxics that don’t dissolve in seawater. Plastic pellets have been found to accumulate up to 1 million times the level of these poisons that are floating in the water itself. These are not like heavy metal poisons that affect the animal that ingests them directly. Rather, they are what might be called second-generation toxics.
Animals have evolved receptors for elaborate organic molecules called hormones, which regulate brain activity and reproduction. Hormone receptors cannot distinguish these toxics from the natural estrogenic hormone, estradiol, and when the pollutants dock at these receptors instead of the natural hormone, they have been shown to have a number of negative effects in everything from birds and fish to humans.
The whole issue of hormone disruption is becoming one of the biggest- if not the biggest – environmental issue of the 21st century. Hormone disruption has been implicated in lower sperm counts and higher ratios of females to males in both humans and animals.
Unchecked, this trend is a dead end for any species.
A trillion trillion vectors for our worst pollutants are being ingested by the most efficient natural vacuum cleaners nature ever invented, the mucus web feeding jellies and salps (chordate jellies that are the fastest growing multicellular organisms on the planet) out in the middle of the ocean. These organisms are in turn eaten by fish and then, certainly in many cases, by humans.
We can grow pesticide-free organic produce, but can nature still produce a pesticide-free organic fish? After what I have witnessed first hand in the Pacific, I have my doubts.
I am often asked why we can’t vacuum up the particles. In fact, it would be more difficult than vacuuming up every square inch of the entire United States; it’s larger and the fragments are mixed below the surface down to at least 30 meters. Also, untold numbers of organisms would be destroyed in the process.
Besides, there is no economic resource that would be directly benefited by this process. We haven’t yet learned how to factor the health of the environment into our economic paradigm. We need to get to work on this calculus quickly, for a stock market crash will pale by comparison to an ecological crash on an oceanic scale.
I know that when people think of the deep blue ocean they see images of pure, clean, unpolluted water. After we sample the surface water in the central Pacific, I often dive over with a snorkel and a small aquarium net I have yet to come back after a 15-minute swim without plastic fragments for my collection. I can no longer see pristine images when I think of the briny deep.
Neither can I imagine any beach-cleanup type of solution. Only elimination of the source of the problem can result in an ocean nearly free from plastic, and the desired result only will be seen by citizens of the third millennium.
The battle to change the way we -produce and consume plastics has just begun, but I believe it is essential that it be fought now. The levels of plastic particulates in the Pacific have at least tripled in the last 10 years and a tenfold increase in the next decade is not unreasonable. Then, 60 times more plastic than plankton will float on its surface.
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