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Environmental Pollution – The Great Pacific Garbage Patch

Updated: May 22, 2019

“The greatest threat to our planet is the belief that someone else will save it.”


Robert Swan OBE


It’s a floating island… It’s a wreck… It’s garbage!

If you are travelling along the west coast of North America to Japan, this might be the fascinating conversation that you might have with other passengers.

Yes… the great pacific garbage patch is right there but it might not be right to call it a patch anymore because it is twice the size of Texas!

The Discovery

In the history of mankind, there have been many great discoveries. Christopher Columbus discovered America, Captain James Cook discovered the Hawaiian Islands, Vasco Da Gama discovered a trade route from Portugal to India, Sir Francis Drake discovered a passage between South America and the Antartica… it is unfortunate that the era of great discoveries has come to an end. Today, however, we are making discoveries that are not only alarming but also downright trashy.

Yes. In our era we have Captain Charles Moore discovering an unusually large patch of garbage bang in the middle of Pacific Ocean!

In 1997, Captain Charles Moore was returning home from Hawaii when he discovered the disgusting plastic cesspool that the Pacific Ocean is slowly becoming. Since then, he has become one of the most outspoken explorers and investigator to study the environmental pollution that choking the marine life on earth.

Plastic Ocean

How did we fill our ocean with plastic? Here are a few stats to chew on –

Did you know that we use 300 million tonnes of new plastic every year? And what’s worse is that we use the plastic for less than 12 minutes and 8 million tonnes of this same plastic ends up in the ocean every year!

If this continued, there is no doubt about the fact that we will have more plastic than water in our oceans!

People who have seen the great garbage patch in the Pacific Ocean call it a trash Island. Sadly if it were so, we could probably get it cleaned up but it is not.

The problem is a lot more complicated than that. Holly Bamford, the former director of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Marine Debris Program calls it a galaxy of garbage with millions of trash islands spread over hundreds of miles!

“You see these quotes that it’s the size of Texas, then it’s the size of France, and I even heard one description of it as a continent,” Bamford says. “That alone should lend some concern that there’s not consistency in our idea of its size. It’s these hot spots, not one big mass. Maybe if you added them all up it’s the size of Texas, but we still don’t know. It could be bigger than Texas.”

In other words, one can’t just scoop up there and clean it up.

Pacific Trash patch was first spotted from the west coast of North America to Japan. The Western Garbage Patch is located near Japan and the Eastern Patch is between the US states of Hawaii and California.

If you thought that this garbage trash is sitting on the placid ocean waiting for someone to take it out then you are wrong. This patch couldn’t be in a more wrong place because this is the convergence zone where the warm water from the South Pacific meets the cool water from the Arctic. In other words, this zone is like a crossroad highway that moves the debris from one patch to another.

The problem of this garbage patch is also its location as it is bounded by the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre.

What is a Gyre?

Ocean gyre is nothing but circular ocean currents that are formed by Earth’s wind patterns and the rotation of the planet. In the North Pacific, the Subtropical Gyre is created, thanks to the intersection of California, North Equatorial, Kurishiro and North Pacific Currents.

Normally the centre of the Gyre is supposed to calm and stable much like the eye of the storm (where it is calm). As the Gyre circles and spirals around, it draws the debris to the stable centre and that’s where it becomes trapped. So if someone were to dispose of a plastic water bottle off the coast of California, the California Current carries it south towards Mexico where it may catch the North Equatorial current and crosses its way towards the vast pacific and joins its brethren to become one among the million in the plastic ocean.

One thing that we need to remember is that about 70% of marine debris sinks to the bottom. One can only imagine how the floor of the ocean might look! Debris that is dense enough sinks a few centimetres while some sink all the way to the floor.

Microplastics

Plastic is one invention that is getting the entire mankind into trouble and not to mention, the marine species that are inadvertently choking on them. Plastic is biodegradable and over the years the plastic waste that is carried by the ocean currents breaks into tiny pieces. In some places, the microscopic pieces of plastic outnumber plankton (microscopic organisms that drift and float in the sea and fresh water) by a ratio of 26:1. Dubbed as ‘microplastics’ these are pieces that are smaller than 5mm and are considered to be most harmful of all the plastic pollution that we dump into the waters.

Why?

That’s because the marine species find it difficult to distinguish between microplastics and real food. Microplastics have already entered the food chain of the marine species and are choking the life out of them.

Recent studies have roughly estimated that 236,000 tonnes of microplastics (which is smaller than your little fingernail) enters our oceans every year and has since entered the food chain of the marine species as well. Corals, Zooplankton and many other marine species are consuming the ‘microplastics’ every day as part of their meal.

Apart from the ‘microplastics’ our oceans, sea and the sand are contaminated by Bisphenol A (BPA) thanks to the plastic that we have been disposing of in the ocean. Bisphenol A is an organic compound that is used to make epoxy resins, polycarbonate polymers and many other plastic-based items. BPA in the ocean environment is a huge cause of concern because recent studies show that .01 to .50 parts per million is contaminated as of today.

Causalities of Plastic Ocean

The first casualty is the marine species of course. Thanks to our actions, the fish in the ocean is imbibing microplastic as a part of its daily food. That’s not all that we have done. The BPA that is released by the plastic that is mouldering (not) in the ocean is also causing reproductive disorders in crustaceans and shellfish. What is alarming is that even tiny doses that are lower than a single part per trillion affect these marine species at the cellular level. Similar to mercury and other toxins, BPA has the ability to bioaccumulate within animals and greater the concentration of the same, the higher the rate of it going all the way up the food chain to the top predators such as dolphins, sharks, seals and ultimately humans.

I might say that it is all ultimately Karma but I am sure you know all about it.

In the meantime, let me give you some more bad news. You might have sea birds hovering around while sailing. Do you know they gorge on the plastics that we are carelessly throwing into the sea?

Yes.

To them, plastic debris smells like a juicy food to gobble up. Many species of seabirds follow the smell of dying algae to hunt their food. To them, that smell signals the fact that the krills are eating the microscopic plants and they fly down to have a go at the Krills.When the Krills eat the algae it releases a distinct smelling sulphurous compound on which the seabirds home in. Now rotting plastic bottles and other seemly trash too smells the same for these birds and they end up imbibing it.

The way forward

I see no other way forward but to clean up our act. Today, there are societies and organisations that are funding expedition after expedition trying to clean up a mess of our own making.

I am especially optimistic about our future when 16-year-old boys like Boyan Slat start organisations to clean up the ocean. He came up with this idea after he saw first hand that there is more plastic in the ocean than fish and set about forming an organisation called The Ocean Cleanup.

They have since come with up with many passive systems that would use the ocean’s current to tackle the problem of plastic debris.

In the meanwhile, German sportswear maker Adidas is designing new running gear using the wasteful plastic dumped into the ocean.

If only, other companies too, come up with such schemes, I am sure people would rush out there to clean up the garbage.

While there are people cleaning up the ocean and others using the stuff that they pick from the trash to make new stuff, can we at least stop using plastic and stop dumping them?

It really isn’t too much to ask, is it?

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