March 12, 2007

the largest dump on earth

A juvenile albatross amid plastic debris that has washed up at Midway Atoll. East of midway and the Hawaiian Islands is what is perhaps the world's largest garbage dump: a floating, rotating patch of trash-laden water about twice the size of Texas. photo by rick loomis for la times

While researching about the use of plastics (I was thinking more about tupperware at the time) I came across information about an enormous area in the Pacific Ocean full of floating debris and waste. At first I didn't believe it could be true, so I googled "eastern garbage patch" and found incredible amounts of information about this phenomenon. I know plastics are pervasive, but I really didn't know there was a flotsam the size of Texas full of waste in the Pacific Ocean - the world's largest dump, halfway between Hawaii and San Francisco.

Greenpeace explains it as follows, "The North Pacific sub-tropical gyre covers a large area of the Pacific in which the water circulates clockwise in a slow spiral. Winds are light. The currents tend to force any floating material into the low energy central area of the gyre. There are few islands on which the floating material can beach. So it stays there in the gyre, in astounding quantities estimated at six kilos of plastic for every kilo of naturally occurring plankton. The equivalent of an area the size of Texas swirling slowly around like a clock. This gyre has also been dubbed “the Asian Trash Trail” the “Trash Vortex” or the “Eastern Garbage Patch”.

The LA Times reported on the situation in August 2006. They say, "Nearly 90% of floating marine litter is plastic — supple, durable materials such as polyethylene and polypropylene, Styrofoam, nylon and saran. About four-fifths of marine trash comes from land, swept by wind or washed by rain off highways and city streets, down streams and rivers, and out to sea."

I had no idea this mass was out there. It might be that I'm the last to know (wouldn't be the first time). It is a much bigger issue than I had visions of conquering on this blog. I mean, what is a mom like me to do about THAT?

Interestingly, it was also written up in a parenting newsletter in the Washington Post. The author suggests, "Why do I write about an environmental atrocity in a newsletter about parenting? Because here's what researchers recover from those albatross chicks and garbage gyres: Lego pieces, toy soldiers, bottle caps, beach balls, sandals, plastic dinosaurs, checkers. Sure, the junk that pervades the oceans and pollutes beach sand with plastic pellets comes from sources other than family consumption. About a fifth comes from ships dumping illegally at sea to avoid high port costs, the Times reports. But much of the debris is the stuff of our children's closets and junk drawers.

So here's what, parents: Think twice before you plop down your quarters for dime-store junk. Stuff party goody bags with one toy worth keeping, not five that will get tossed the next day. Teach your children to keep track of Lego blocks and toy soldiers. The average American used 223 pounds of plastic in 2001--plastic that will persist in the environment for perhaps a century. Unless we change, the very sand between your kids' toes on your next beach vacation could be at stake."

Sailor Charles Moore, who has sailed through the patch and works to research it in hopes of finding a solution says, "Transported and concentrated by plastic pellets, some of the most toxic pollutants known are being released into the food web. Farmers can grow pesticide-free organic produce, but can nature still produce a pollutant-free organic fish? After what I have seen firsthand in the Pacific, I have my doubts"

If you don't believe me, watch this video from the LA Times. It is far more convincing than I am here. Select the "Trashing Our Oceans" video from the nav bar on the left. Seeing the actual plastic washing up on Hawaii is pretty incredible.


Anonymous said...

I heard about this about a year ago and have been thinking about it ever since. To date, I still don't know how to tackle the problem beyond taking individual actions. We have drastically cut down plastic usage in my family and we continue to think of ways to reduce further. But plastic junk is being sold and thrown away all over the world every second, not to mention the nurdles.

Global warming has finally entered people's vernacular (at least some people). The continent-sized plastic dump is still only seen by a few. Even some of my friends whom I consider to be fairly eco-minded have never heard of this. It's easy to be a defeatist in this case, but we can't afford to be. This tremendous problem needs to be pushed to the forefront of national consciousness. Now we just need to figure out the starting point.

Anonymous said...

We can all make a difference. One small step adds up to major changes. It's sad that we are such a wasteful society, but sometimes education is the first step to making change.