Out in the North Pacific Ocean is a region of doldrums. To the north the prevailing winds blow from east to west, below this region from west to east. The winds drive currents and the result is the North Pacific Gyre. This is essentially a slow motion whirlpool that traps the flotsam and jetsam of the planet. There are other ocean gyres.
The northern gyre, two or three times the size of Texas, contains over a 100 million tonnes of trash, almost entirely non-degradable plastic. There are regions of compact “islands” of trash and other areas where the trash is more dispersed.
This just not the wastes from ships in the region but rather the accumulated wastes that wash into the oceans from around the world. A plastic bag that blows out of the back of a pick-up in Montana can make its way through the Columbia river watershed to the coast. There the currents deliver the trash to the gyre.
The rafts of plastic in the gyre have created a whole new toxic environment in the middle of the ocean. Millions of seabird die annually from consumption of indigestible plastic. Hundreds of thousands of sea mammals and turtles die just from being entrapped in the waste.
A unique and troublesome type of plastic waste making its way to the seas are called microbeads. These are tiny tiny beads of plastic that are used in a number of cosmetic products and soaps as scrubbing agents or exfoliants. They are small enough to be taken up in diatoms, and then up the food chain.Because of certain chemical properties they act like magnets to absorb toxic materials such as pesticides. When ocean fish or crabs, clams, etc. accumulate the beads via the food chain they have the potential of returning these toxins to our dinner table!
The very properties that make plastic attractive in modern society, lightweight, durable and inexpensive is coming back to haunt us. We are drowning in a sea of plastic wastes. What are we to do? We have trash collection and recycling across the country but obviously we are not doing enough.
Strengthening litter laws or recycling rules will help but what is really needed is a completely different way of doing things. Some communities are beginning to take small steps. Cities have enacted laws to charge a small fee for the use of disposable bags at checkout, say a nickel a bag. This is not an onerous fee but it is enough to make people think. California just passed an outright ban on disposable checkout bags.
We have to change the we we do business. The ubiquitous blister packing has to go. All plastic involved in packing has to go. Microbeads, out! This list goes on and on. There will have to be a new business ethic to clean up the planet or laws to the same effect.
We have a chance of surviving our own wastes without “murdering “ the rest of the planet but we have to change our ways. We have to stop filling the atmosphere with waste gases that are dangerously warming the earth, and we have to stop filling the oceans with our non-degradable solid waste.