The Pacific Ocean’s Trash Vortex
Human beings are ingenious creatures. We are the capstone of resourcefulness and creativity.
Employing these aptitudes, each generation has invented a myriad of novel products, unfathomable to their predecessors, which have subsequently become embedded in the future structure of our society.
The fabrication of common plastics exemplifies just this sort of innovation. Since they were first engineered in the late 1800’s, these polymers have integrated so completely into our routines that the notion of life without them is hardly imaginable.
Though there are a multitude of different plastic compounds, two in particular stand out. Whereas some polymers are seen as durable (think of the Copolyester used in a Nalgene bottles) and reusable, LDPE (Low Density Polyethylene) and PET (Polyethylene Terephthalate), are among the most flimsy and abundantly disposed plastics in the world. Unfortunately, these are also the plastics with the most varied conventional applications.
We see them everyday: LDPE constitute the plastic grocery bags we accumulate every week, trash bags under the sink, and the six-pack ring around our beer, while PET make up individually packaged water and soda bottles we buy from vending machines. Generally we forget about the impact that these plastics have on the environment because we are more concerned with what they are packaging. I know that I’m far less concerned with the production and disposal of my Evian bottle than with how chic it makes me look.
Unfortunately, this is precisely the attitude which has bred the ‘Use and Toss’ culture we see today. Though some may argue that this censure is unwarranted, the statistics are plain. It is estimated that over 500 billion plastic bags are used globally every year, of which less than 1% end up being recycled. Moreover, people in the United States alone consume nearly 50 billion bottles of water annually with less than 20% ending up in a recycling plant.
So what becomes of the waste in this unidirectional, unsustainable system?
Well, naturally, the trash collects. It litters sewers, is strewn across cities, fills dumps.
What’s most alarming (and least natural) is that a substantial portion of this refuse has collected in an unintentional dumpster: The Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
Surreal as it sounds, there is a pool of marine litter between the size of Texas and the continental United States floating about the North Pacific Gyre. Plastic materials (80% from Land/20% from boats) circulate in this area and have begun to infiltrate the habitats of nearby ocean creatures. These polymers do not biodegrade, but instead break apart into smaller bits of shrapnel which are then ingested by small fish, turtles, and birds (See Below).
Unfortunately at this time there is no feasible solution to the problem. The proposed ideas revolve around changing our habits to ensure that the magnitude of the Garbage Patch doesn’t grow. So before you buy that next bottle of water or stuff groceries into plastic bags at the end of the cashier’s lane, remember just how ingenious we humans are and see if you can’t think of a less wasteful strategy for the task at hand.
An engaging talk by Charles Moore, the man who first discovered The Great Pacific Garbage Patch
If you’re interested in change, these are just a few of the companies that have made it their mission to free us from a dependence on unsustainable plastics: