August 15, 2013 More Plastic than Plankton in the Pacific
A mass of plastic in the Pacific, increasing tenfold each decade since 1945, is now the size of France and killing everything in its wake. And recently masses of plastic likened to toxic chunky soup has been documented in both the Indian and Atlantic Oceans as well as the Mediterranean Sea.
In America consume and discard 33 billion plastic disposable beverage bottles a year. Tens of millions of those bottles are now in the oceans.
Globally, 280 million metric tons of plastic are generated each year. Over 3.5 million pieces of plastic enter the oceans every year. The United Nations Environmental Program now estimates that there are 46,000 floating pieces of plastic for every square kilometer of ocean. Some of that trash circulating the globe is 95 feet deep.
Worldwide, each year 250 billion pounds of small plastic pellets called nurdles – the feedstock for all disposable plastics are shipped and billions are spilled during transfer in and out of railroad cars. Those spilled nurdles are ending up in gutters and drains and eventually carried into the ocean. And some are even washing up on the shores of Antarctica.
In just three days in 2006 a quarter of billion nurdles washed down the Los Angeles and San Gabriel Rivers into the Pacific Ocean.
Unless we curtail our addiction to plastics, which per person in the U.S. has dramatically increased from 226 pounds per person in 2001 to 325 pounds per person in 2012, we too will choke on them. Scientists from the University of California predict that oceanic masses of plastics will increase to 32 billion metric tons a year, within three decades. And those toxic micro-plastics hang around for at least 400 years in the oceans.
Plastic is a petroleum by-product and the most commonly produced resin in North America includes: polyethylene, polypropylene and polystyrene.
Long chain molecules that make up plastic are durable and long lasting. In the ocean they may take 400 years to break down. Sunlight photo-degrades plastic breaking it into smaller and smaller pieces.
At least 85 percent of the plastic in the ocean originated from the land. Thousands of cargo containers fall overboard in stormy seas each year. In 2002, 33,000 blue-and-white Nike basketball shoes were spilled off the coast of Washington.
Plastic in the ocean acts like sponges attracting neuron-toxins like mercury and pyrethroids insecticides, carcinogens such as PCBs, DDT and PBDE (the backbone of flame retardants), and man-made hormones like progesterone and estrogen that at high levels induce both male and female reproductive parts on a single animal.
Japanese scientists found nurdles with concentrations of poisons listed above as high as a million times their concentrations in the water as free-floating substances.
Each year a million sea birds and 100,000 sharks, turtles, dolphins and whales die from eating plastic.
Nurdles resemble fish eggs or roe and tuna and salmon feed on them indiscriminately. Around 2.5 billion humans eat fish regularly. Plastic and other man-made toxins are polluting the global food chain and it’s escalating at an unprecedented rate.
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is actually comprised of two enormous masses of ever-growing garbage. The Eastern Garbage Patch floats between Hawaii and California. The Western Garbage Patch extends east of Japan to the western archipelago of the Hawaiian Islands. A narrow 6,000-mile long current called the Subtropical Convergence Zone connects the patches.
The Atlantic Garbage Patch floats between Bermuda and Portugal’s mid-Atlantic Azores Islands. The highest concentrations of plastic occur between 22 and 38 degrees northern latitude an offshore patch equivalent to the area between Cuba and Washington, D.C.
The massive clockwise North Pacific Gyre is carrying plastic that is over 50 years old. Last year, plastic found in the stomach of an albatross had a serial number traced to a World War II seaplane shot down just south of Japan in 1944 and identified over 60 years later off the West Coast of the U.S.
Currently, there is six times more plastic than plankton floating in the middle of the Pacific.
The North Pacific Gyre, its ocean currents and winds have essentially become a giant toilet bowl that regularly disgorges feet of plastic onto Hawaii’s Big Island. Kamilo Beach is often covered in plastic lighters, toothbrushes, water bottles, pens, nurdles, baby bottles, cell phones and plastic bags. About a half a trillion plastic bags are manufactured each year around the globe.
Oceanographers and conservation biologists believe the only way to contend with the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is to slow the amount of plastic flowing from the land to the sea.
Buy six organic cotton shopping bags. Use them instead of supermarket single-use disposable plastic bags. Make it a habit to return those organic cotton bags to the trunk of your car after unpacking groceries.
Re-use your plastic water bottles. If you can refill one bottle for a day then why not attempt it for a week.
Thermal conversion landfill have the ability to render all landfill trash neutral and prevent landfills from contaminating ground water and haphazardly leaking the potent greenhouse gas methane into the atmosphere.
In the meantime, each of us must deliberately reduce the amount of trash we generate, and in particular the quantity of disposable single-use plastic that are carelessly being discarded – because the ocean and all of its life forms are suffocating.
Earth Dr Reese Halter is an award-winning broadcaster and distinguished conservation biologist. His latest book with Chris Maser is Life, The Wonder of it All
Text © by Dr Reese Halter 2013. All rights reserved.
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