by Michele McKay
Out in the ocean, thousands of miles from land, floats the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Here, currents in the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre converge and drift slowly in vast circles, concentrating debris into a huge garbage vortex. Trash has been accumulating in this Patch for decades; its size could now exceed that of the continental United States.
Millions of pounds of garbage end up in the ocean every year. Some of it is intentionally dumped from vessels, some accidentally lost at sea, and some washes from land via storm drains and streams. By far the bulk of the rubbish is plastic…parts of the Garbage Patch are now a plastic “soup” where there may even be more plastic, by weight, than plankton.
Here in Hawaii, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Marine Debris Program’s outreach coordinator, Carey Morishige, says that our location in the Pacific creates a particular problem, as ocean currents and winds accumulate tons of non-biodegradable litter into our waters and onto our beaches. The plastic debris is more than unsightly: it traps, mutilates, lacerates organs, and starves sea turtles, marine mammals, birds, and fish. It may also be releasing toxins that progress up the aquatic food chain.
Two eco-mariners, Dr. Marcus Eriksen and Joel Paschal, recently sailed through the Pacific garbage patch from California to Hawaii on a ‘junk raft’ made of 15,000 plastic bottles bound together with old fishing net. Their mission: to help call attention to the accumulation of plastic in the seas and to organizations that are addressing the problem or supporting legislation on plastic waste. Eriksen and Paschal report that after 3 months at sea none of the plastic bottles in their raft pontoons showed much wear and tear, demonstrating the durability of plastic trash in the ocean. The very feature that makes plastic useful to people also makes it an ecological disaster: it doesn’t go away. Contrary to common misconceptions, plastic does not biodegrade – it just breaks down into very tiny pieces. Eventually, these micro-bits end up on beaches, inside sea creatures, and on the ocean floor, becoming part of the sedimentary record for millions of years.
What you can do
Prevent the proliferation of plastic:
- Remember to take reusable shopping bags, food containers, and water bottles when you go out – and to use them! Buy in bulk, and avoid excessive packaging.
- Know what can be recycled in your area, and buy items in recyclable containers.
- Don’t litter, ever. Be part of the solution by picking up litter when you see it.
- Visit the NOAA Marine Debris Program website, www.marinedebris.noaa.gov and the new educational and interactive campaign site, www.keepoceansclean.org
- Visit www.junkraft.blogspot.com to see Eriksen and Paschal’s junk raft and to learn more about their mission, their message, and their voyage across the Pacific.