By Kary Vannice
No doubt you’ve heard of the massive island of trash that ‘floats’ as a testament to modern man’s incredible propensity for unnecessary waste – The Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
Basically, it’s a floating mass of mostly plastic debris that is suspended in an area of the Pacific Ocean where currents, both oceanic and wind, converge into a whirling washing machine of waste. Some reports say it’s the size of Texas, but any honest scientist will tell you that, frankly, they have no idea how big it is.
Located roughly between 135°W to 155°W and 35°N and 42°N in the North Pacific Ocean, it’s hard to quantify just how much garbage is currently floating in the “patch.”
While it’s not hard to find impressive video footage of boats floating through literal islands of garbage, for the most part, the plastics that make up the majority of the mass are quite small. Scientists know that the bulk of waste in suspension is below the surface and not easily seen by the naked eye. What’s floating on the surface is only about 5% of what’s really out there, according to Ocean Conservancy. The other 95% is beneath the surface. Sadly, this only reinforces our “out of sight, out of mind” attitude toward all things rubbish.
We have become a species obsessed with quick and convenient. Thirsty? No problem. There’s probably a plastic bottle of water within a few meters of where you’re standing at any given time! Lucky you, right? Perhaps, but once you’re done with that bottle there’s an 80% chance it will end up in a landfill or somewhere else in nature, like the ocean.
Roughly 50% of all plastic produced in the world today is “single use” plastic. Meaning that you’re only going to use whatever it is once and then throw it away. How long does it take you to drink a bottle of water? 10 minutes? 30 minutes, maybe? After you’re done, that plastic bottle is going to “exist” in some form for another 450 years! If your bottle finds its way into a body of water, it will breakdown, slowly…very, very slowly…all the while leaching toxic chemicals into the water that affect all strata of marine life.
Oh, and in case you hadn’t heard, less than a year ago an even larger “garbage island” was found in the South Pacific. That one is said to be the size of Mexico, and we all know how big Mexico is! There are five major trash “gyres” in all; the other three are located in the North Atlantic, the South Atlantic, and the Indian Ocean. And there are many other smaller areas where human litter conglomerates in bodies of water around the globe.
If you’re reading this and self-righteously thinking you’ve taken no part in the creation of “Garbage Island,” think again! According to one study conducted in 2015, nearly 8 million metric tons of plastic enter our oceans yearly, most of it coming from people who live within 50 kilometers (30 miles) of a coastline. Really, who among us hasn’t had an errant grocery bag float away in a gust of wind? Or tossed a water bottle into a trash bin, not knowing where it was going to end up?
Why is plastic such a big problem? Because “every bit of plastic ever made still exists,” according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. It just never goes away. But, once you’re done with it, it has to “go” somewhere.
If it happens to make its way into the sea, much of it ends up in the bellies of sea birds and turtles, fish, marine mammals, and even creatures lower on the food chain. If you’re a lover of clams, oysters, and mussels, I’ve got bad news for you. Studies show that it’s unlikely you can find a wild harvested mollusk that does not contain plastic microfibers. Plastics are contributing to the decline of our coral reefs, too.
According to https://cleanwater.org/, “Marine plastic pollution has impacted at least 267 species worldwide, including 86% of all sea turtle species, 44% of all seabird species and 43% of all marine mammal species. The impacts include fatalities as a result of ingestion, starvation, suffocation, infection, drowning, and entanglement.” In one United Nations report, scientists state that by 2050 there will be more plastics in our oceans than fish!
So, what can be done to save our sea life?
At this point, large-scale ocean cleanup is a necessity, since many of the existing plastics could remain in our oceans for nearly half a millennium.
Several projects are currently underway. The best known is The Ocean Cleanup project. Started in 2013 by then 18-year-old Dutch inventor and entrepreneur, Boyan Slat, the system uses a large floating screen that moves with the ocean currents “catching” debris as it moves. While it is an incredibly ambitious project and, in theory, promises to rid our oceans of 50% of all plastics in just 5 years, it is still in the testing phase and could be a long way from delivering on its promise.
Other concerned scientists and activists are focusing their efforts on diminishing the source of all that plastic. One project, active in Asia, has catchment systems set up on tributaries that flow into the ocean. Trash filtered out of rivers and streams is sorted and then, if possible, recycled.
Still others are taking a more home-grown approach, like 4Ocean (https://4ocean.com/), an organization that employs sea captains to “fish” for trash and organizes beach cleanup crews. And they do it all by selling recycled bracelets online! One bracelet funds the removal of one pound of rubbish.
4Ocean and similar projects prove that you needn’t look any further than your own two hands to get involved and prevent more plastics from entering our oceans. If you live or vacation in a coastal area, volunteer for or organize cleanup days at local beaches.
However, without a doubt, the most important thing you can do to make a difference is to make the decision to become more personally responsible when it comes to your consumption and disposal of plastics, and single-use plastics in particular.
Here are 10 ways to easily reduce your “single use” plastic consumption:
1) Invest in a reusable non-plastic water bottle.
2) Get cloth shopping bags and use them!
3) Say “no” to plastic drinking straws.
4) Buy reusable mesh produce bags.
5) Get a reusable coffee tumbler.
6) Store and carry food in glass containers.
7) Avoid products with excess plastic packaging.
8) Stop using plastic cutlery.
9) Shop local instead of online (packaging!).
10) Don’t buy products containing “micro beads.”
Do these things and the next time you’re out enjoying a day at the beach, you can take credit for being a conscientious and responsible steward of the sea.