Friday, December 26, 2008

Garbage Island - What is it and How Did it Form?

Plastic Soup - What is Garbage Island and How Did it Form? by Jennifer Shon

Picture this - You get up in the morning, brush your teeth and get ready to go to work. Grabbing your travel mug you head out the door to the office. The day is long so you order lunch from that place down the street. You finish up the day and head home, picking up some take out because your effort to cook, after such a long day, is really low. You get home, sit down to watch some television with dinner and finally wash your face and go to bed.

This day sounds innocent enough, typical of many people out there in the working world. How could a day like this contribute to what is known as Garbage Island? Or, more importantly, what is Garbage Island? The crew from wanted to find out and share their discovery with the world.

Garbage Island is a swirling current (called the North Pacific Gyre) approximately 1,000 miles off the shoreline of California where accumulated plastics of all shapes and sizes have floated to stay. Since plastic does not biodegrade but instead disintegrates into smaller particles, the ocean is the perfect catch basin for much of this debris. The crew on this mission discovered everything from birthday balloons to helmets to tires but the most frightening thing of all was the volume; the ratio of plastic to marine life in some areas was upwards of 1000:1. Yikes. So where did it all come from and how did it end up in the Pacific?

Go back to the day of the average person again and instead of being so vague let's detail some of the places in this story where plastics could have been used.

You get up in the morning and hit the off button of the plastic alarm clock beside your bed. Brush your teeth with a plastic toothbrush. Women apply makeup (housed in plastic containers, using brushes with plastic handles); men shave their face (using either an electric razor encased in plastic or a disposable plastic razor). You grab your insulated travel mug with the plastic lid, jump into the car (I can not even fathom how many plastic pieces are utilized in a car) and head into the office. Using your plastic badge you enter the building, sit down in your plastic based office chair, turn on the plastic based computer and work until lunch.

At lunch you order soup and a salad from the deli down the street; each are stored in a plastic container. You head home and stop for take out (in a Styrofoam [plastic] container of course) and turn on the plastic based television while eating. After an evening of scrolling through the channels using the plastic based remote you wash your face with that stuff you love that comes in the plastic tube and finally, go to bed.

On the lowest level this person used fifteen plastic based items in one day. As our society has become more disposable minded all of those items are built to wear out quicker, causing a need to repurchase and toss the old item. Many times this garbage will fall off a ship but more than not it comes directly from the land. This is possible even when we do not realize it is happening - next time you see a plastic bag floating in the breeze think about how far the wind might blow it before it stops, when a bottle whooshes into a storm drain after a particularly heavy rain think about where that waterway ends.

One of the quotes from the video series was particularly striking:

"Persistent Organic Pollutants are chemical substances that persist in the environment, bio-accumulate through the food web, and pose a risk of causing adverse effects to human health and the environment" - United Nations Environmental Program.

Bio-accumulation is when substances like harmful compounds (toxins) amass, in diverse tissues of living creatures. In this example the obvious organism would be marine life but the chain of ingesting toxic chemicals grows as birds eat the fish, other fish eat the fish and humans eat the fish. Contaminates are introduced into our daily food supply and are seriously impacting sustained life of entire species on this planet (an example is when a bird goes out to eat and returns to feed their young, the young end up with stomachs full of plastic as opposed to the essential nutrients they need to survive and they perish as a result).

So what can we do? Can we physically clean up all the pieces that are already there? Unlikely. Can we make an attempt to stop putting more into the ocean? Absolutely!

The most important thing we can do with all non-biodegradable plastics currently available is extend their life span. When we act as consumers we need to think of the total life cycle of the item in question - how long do we intend to use the item, what do we do with the item at the end of its life? If we are throwing it away we should be conscientious as to how we do so - do we recycle our plastic or throw it in the trash, is there a way to reuse it, can we up-cycle the item into something functional that may last long beyond the initial intended life span?

Opening our eyes to the issue and reducing our dependence on disposable plastic products is the first step in fixing the problem and the video that shared is a fantastic eye opener. To learn more please visit the link below. Be aware that the twelve parts (plus the five minute extra) are an approximate run time of a little over an hour and some very colorful language is used throughout. It is well worth putting that aside to watch and learn.

For more information on the twelve part series please visit:

Environmental topics are discussed daily at:

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