When Garbage Doesn’t Die

Editor’s Note: Water Planet is an open forum for leading nonprofit marine conservation groups and advocates to sound off on environmental issues. Opinions expressed here are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Divers Alert Network®.

Continental masses cause ocean currents to develop circular patterns, known as gyres, in each of the three major ocean basins. The North Pacific Gyre, formed by the southern currents off the coast of North America and the northern currents off the coast of Asia, is the world’s largest.

As increasing amounts of plastic trash and debris find their way to sea, this natural phenomenon has become an area of concern. Over time, all floating waste from land migrates to gyres, where it remains trapped — out of sight, out of mind, but not without adverse environmental consequences. The North Pacific Gyre is home to what many are now calling the Eastern Pacific Garbage Patch, a concentration of plastic debris estimated to be 30 feet deep and spread out over an area twice the size of Texas.

Two men and one woman pose next to a giant pile of garbage

The problem: Plastics don’t break down naturally. Instead, they undergo a process of photodegradation, in which sunlight causes the material to disintegrate into increasingly smaller pieces. Water samples taken from the garbage patch show stratified layers of plastic bits, including a cloudy mass of plankton-sized particles. “The gyre contains plastic in all states of degradation,” says Capt. Charles Moore, who first discovered the problem. “It all combines in a sort of soup.”

His was a rude awakening back in 1997. During a yacht race from Southern California to Hawaii, Moore veered off a normal heading and saw an ocean he barely recognized. He notes that within the gyre, “Every time I came on deck to survey the horizon, I saw a soap bottle, bottle cap or a shard of plastic waste bobbing by. Here I was in the middle of the ocean, and there was nowhere I could go to avoid the plastic.”

It was his personal wake-up call, and the Algalita Marine Research Foundation was born to address the perils of plastics pollution. His operational premise: “Industries reaping large profits from the creation of these plastic materials should be tasked with the challenge of recycling.”

While large pieces of plastic debris are a well-documented threat to sea birds and turtles, the new concern is what is happening beneath the water’s surface. Researchers worry that marine animals are mistaking the smallest plastic bits for plankton. As they ingest the plastic, the fear is that these polypeptides are working their way up the food chain. As a result, they may even be finding their way to our dinner tables in the tissue of tuna, mahi mahi and other culinary favorites. Early research suggests that degraded plastics create chemicals that mimic estradiol (a sex hormone). Agents such as bisphenol A, commonly abbreviated as BPA, and a whole gamut of other harmful synthetic polymers contained in plastics have been shown to interfere with critical aspects of metabolic activity in humans.

Challenges to cleaning up the growing mass of plastics in the world’s oceans are many, including the great distance from land, the nebulous nature of this slurry and seasonal rough seas. Despite these setbacks, scientists and environmental groups have proposed a variety of solutions. An obvious solution in the minds of some environmentalists is banning disposable plastic bags and creating awareness about superfluous packaging.

“The best way to stop this problem is to refuse plastics when offered,” says Daniella Russo, executive director and co-founder of the Plastic Pollution Coalition (PPC). In the end, there are those tasked with cleaning up this mess of epic proportions, and to that we have to look to governmental agencies like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to take the lead.

There is also the more strategic and personal means of proactive resolution. We have to collectively reduce our “plastic footprint.” We know that from looking at our landfills. Now we know that from sailing our seas.

What Divers Can Do

The magnitude of the plastic problem may leave many divers feeling helpless; however, small steps to reduce plastic waste do help. Here are some tips:

Switch bags
Make plastic use a conscious decision. Look around: Everything from apples to CDs to individual slices of cheese comes wrapped in plastic. Whenever possible, choose plastic alternatives or reusable options; that includes paper bags and reusable cloth grocery bags. Unless absolutely necessary, skip the plastic produce bags. If you must use a disposable plastic item, make sure you recycle the plastic. Many grocery stores have a recycling bin for plastic bags.

Replace bottles
Bring your own aluminum or steel water bottle to the office, gym or when you travel. If you do need to purchase bottled water, be sure to recycle the bottle.

Request a “for-here” cup
Coffee bars are usually set up to dispense your java in paper cups with plastic lids. If you’re not on the run, ask that yours be served in a ceramic mug. If you are on the run, bring your own reusable mug.

Get involved
Educate yourself, and share what you learn with friends, starting with your own tips on how to reduce plastic waste.

Who’s Doing What?

Algalita Marine Research Foundation
Capt. Charles Moore, the man credited with discovering the Eastern Pacific Garbage Patch, founded the Algalita Marine Research Foundation with the goal of protecting the marine environment through research and education. The foundation has released an educational DVD series titled The Synthetic Sea Story; it traces the history of research on plastic debris in the world’s oceans.

Focused on removal operations, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is working to use oceanographic information to help predict the areas of convergence where debris likely concentrates. A better understanding of these processes will provide enough confidence forcost-effective, successful cleanup efforts.

PLASTIC Pollution Coalition
The coalition provides a platform for individuals and institutions to share resources and coordinate efforts, explore synergies and strategize together to reduce plastic pollution.

Dive Into Your Imagination
Dive Into Your Imagination is changing the way a new generation views oceans. During a recent SEAPLEX expedition for Project Kaisei, founder Annie Crawley helped document the North Pacific Gyre and has created an excellent online blog on the science of the garbage patch.

© Alert Diver — Q2 Spring 2010