Friday, November 20, 2009

POLLUTION: The Great Pacific Garbage Patch - A Primer

By Michael Arms

In recent months, media outlets and some celebrities have turned the spotlight on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Last August, a team of scientists, oceanographers, researchers, and ocean-lovers set sail in an expedition, known as the Project Kaisei, to the area to find out more about the severity of this threat to the ocean ecosystem.

What is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch?

The Great Pacific Patch is a large swath of the ocean, estimated to be twice the size of Texas containing as much as 100 million tons of plastic garbage. In 1997, Captain Charles Moore, a California-based sea captain discovered the area, while passing through on his way home from a sailing race in Asia. The documentation and samples brought back by the researchers of Project Kaisei confirmed our worst fears - the area is much larger than was originally thought, it is filled with so much debris, and it is growing.

How was it formed?

The plastic now trapped in the patch have accumulated gradually through several decades from debris thrown or washed to the sea from the surrounding coastlines and from passing ships. This is garbage coming from every country in the northern Pacific basin from North America to east Asia to Australia. The garbage is drawn to what is known as the Northern Pacific Gyre, a system of currents in the northern Pacific, forced into the center of the huge vortex, and trapped there by the peripheral circulating currents.

Why should we be concerned?

Recently, a documentary film featuring Sigourney Weaver, explained the gradual acidification of the oceans from uncontrolled carbon dioxide emissions. It is estimated that by 2100, if the trend continues, the oceans' acidity will be twice that of the pre-industrial era, effectively killing much of the marine organisms that form the base of our food chain. The plastic in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is doing that already.

It is estimated that a million organisms die each day from ingesting the minute fragments of plastic floating around in this lethal soup. The toxins released by the decaying plastics are also ingested by these organisms that are served on our dinner tables - the plastic we carelessly threw away has come back to us through the food that we eat!

What can we do?

One of the tasks of the Kaisei scientific expedition was to determine the viability of extracting the plastic from this area for commercial recycling. Until that is possible, it would be too expensive for any one country to undertake the clean up of this veritable mess. What could be done at present is to try and reduce, if not stop altogether, the flow of garbage that gets added to the patch each year. We need strict solid waste disposal policies to prevent more garbage from spilling into the ocean. More and more cities are now banning completely the use of plastic bags and polystyrene containers, and this is an important step.

On the individual level, we can intensify recycling and reduce, if not eliminate, our purchases of plastic. BYOB - "Bring Your Own Bag" - is not just a catchy slogan but a significant factor that would greatly help the ocean, if we all do it.

Out of sight, out of mind. That's the Great Pacific Garbage Patch for most of us. But it is real - as real as the plastic keyboard in front of you, right now - it is out there growing by the day from all the garbage we throw away so heedlessly. Time to put a stop to this killing of our ocean. Let's all do our part.

Michael Arms writes about recycling and other environmental topics for the Pacebutler Recycling Blog. Pacebutler Corporation is a cell phone recycling and trading company - you can sell, recycle, or donate cell phones through Pacebutler.

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1 comment:

  1. I wanted to add that Project Kaisei is also trying to send out ships to the The Great Pacific Garbage Patch next summer to start collecting this garbage. They have developed a way to collect the debris while keeping the wildlife safe. In order to do this they need to raise funds. Help out by donating at