Plastic Ocean

2018 Global Earth Day focuses on the world’s oceans


What: Viewing of A Plastic Ocean: We Need a Wave of Change

When: 7 pm Thu., Apr. 26

Where: Lincoln Theatre, 712 S. First St., Mount Vernon

Cost: By donation


Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Not all trash ends up at the dump. A river, sewer or beach can’t catch everything the rain washes away, either. In fact, Earth’s largest landfill isn’t on land at all.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch stretches across a swath of the North Pacific Ocean, forming a nebulous, floating junk yard on the high seas. It’s the poster child for a worldwide problem: plastic that begins in human hands yet ends up in the ocean, often inside animals’ stomachs or around their necks. This marine debris has sloshed into the public spotlight lately, thanks to growing media coverage as well as expeditions by scientists and explorers hoping to see plastic pollution in action.

Although the Pacific patch was the first known phenomenon of its kind, more have since been found in other oceans, including the Atlantic. And that shouldn’t be surprising: According to a 2015 study, about 8 million metric tons of plastic now enter the ocean during a typical year, mostly coming from people who live within 30 miles of a coastline, but also from even farther inland.

The Earth Day Network, the organization that leads Earth Day worldwide, will focus this year’s event on mobilizing the world to End Plastic Pollution, including creating support for a global effort to eliminate single use plastics along with uniform regulation for the disposal of plastics. The effort will attempt to educate millions of people about the health and other risks associated with the use and disposal of plastics, including pollution of our oceans, water, and wildlife, and about the growing body of evidence that decomposing plastics are creating serious global health problems.

From poisoning and injuring marine life to the ubiquitous presence of plastics in our food to disrupting human hormones and causing major life-threatening diseases and early puberty, the exponential growth of plastics is threatening our planet’s survival.

“There is a growing tidal wave of interest in ending plastic pollution and some countries and governments are already in the vanguard. Earth Day Network believes we can turn that tidal wave into a permanent solution to plastics pollution,” said Kathleen Rogers, president of EDN.

“We will mobilize our global network of NGOs, grassroots organizations, campus youth, mayors and other local elected leaders, faith leaders, artists and athletes, and students and teachers to build a world of educated consumers, voters and activists of all ages who understand the environmental, climate and health consequences of using plastic,” Rogers said.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch has sometimes been described as a “trash island,” but that’s a misconception, according to Holly Bamford, former director of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Marine Debris Program. If only things were that simple.

“We could just go out there and scoop up an island,” Bamford said. “If it was one big mass, it would make our jobs a whole lot easier.”

Instead, it’s like a galaxy of garbage, populated by millions of smaller trash islands that may be hidden underwater or spread out over many miles.

A 2018 study, using data from vessel and aircraft surveys, found that 79,000 tons of plastic are floating in an area spanning 1.6 million square kilometers (about 618,000 square miles). Previously, researchers believed the area was four to 16 times smaller.

Recent ocean voyages have confirmed the garbage patch covers an enormous area, and despite a lack of cohesion, it is relatively dense in places. Researchers have collected up to 750,000 pieces of microplastic from a single square kilometer, for example, and after conducting the first extensive aerial survey—a series of low-speed, low-altitude flights using multiple imaging techniques—the Ocean Cleanup foundation reported “more debris was recorded than what is expected to be found in the heart of the accumulation zone.” The group plans to publish a detailed study about its survey in 2017, but initial crew observations “indicate that in a span of 2.5 hours, over a thousand items were counted.”

While there’s still much we don’t understand about the garbage patch, we do know that most of it’s made of plastic. And that’s where the problems begin.

Unlike most other trash, plastic isn’t usually biodegradable—that is, most of the microbes that break down other substances don’t recognize plastic as food, leaving it to float there forever. Sunlight does eventually “photodegrade” the bonds in plastic polymers, reducing it to smaller and smaller pieces, but that just makes matters worse. The plastic still never goes away; it just becomes microscopic and may be eaten by tiny marine organisms, entering the food chain.

About 80 percent of debris in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch comes from land, much of which is plastic bags, bottles and various other consumer products. Free-floating fishing nets make up another 10 percent of all marine litter, or about 705,000 tons, according to U.N. estimates. The rest comes largely from recreational boaters, offshore oil rigs and large cargo ships, which drop about 10,000 steel shipping containers into the sea each year, full of things like hockey gloves, computer monitors, resin pellets and LEGOs. But despite such diversity — and plenty of metal, glass and rubber in the garbage patch — the majority of material is still plastic, since most everything else sinks or biodegrades before it gets there.

“We need to turn off the taps at the source,” Bamford said. “We need to educate people on the proper disposal of things that do not break up, like plastics,” she said. “Opportunities for recycling have to increase, but, you know, some people buy three bottles of water a day. As a society, we have to get better at reusing what we buy.”

Russell McLendon is science editor for Mother Nature Network,

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