, , , , , , , , , ,

Most who are up on current news are aware of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and our throw-away culture. By the way, there are five of these ocean gyres filled with plastics across the world’s waters. Last month a report was released from the Scripps Institute which puts into perspective what has been the environmental price of our convenience-obsessed culture:

Scripps Institute graduate Miriam Goldstein was chief scientist on a similar expedition to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in 2009. According to her research, there has been a 100-fold increase in plastic garbage in the last 40 years, most of it broken down into tiny crumbs to form a concentrated soup.

The particles are so small and profuse that they can’t be dredged out. “You need a net with very fine mesh and then you’re catching baby fish, baby squid — everything,” Goldstein says. “For every gram of plastic you’re taking out, you probably take out more or less the equivalent of sea life.”

Scientists are worried that the marine organisms that adapt to the plastic could displace existing species. Goldstein said this was a major concern, as organisms that grow on hard surfaces tend to monopolize already scarce food, to the detriment of other species.

“Things that can grow on the plastic are kind of weedy and low diversity — a parallel of the things that grow on the sides of docks,” she says. “We don’t necessarily want an ocean stuffed with barnacles.”

Eriksen says the mood on the Sea Dragon has been upbeat, with crew members playing a ukulele and doing yoga, “but the sobering reality is that we’re trawling through a synthetic soup.

LOL. The researchers mood has been “upbeat” despite the “sobering reality” of their work. Forensic detectives usually develop a morbid sense of humor to deal with the gruesomeness of their work. This might be a tactic that the environmental scientist will want to adopt as we continue working on our own self-eradication from a ravaged planet.

The plastic stuff is broken down into parts so small as to make it impossible to clean them out of the ocean, not to mention the astronomically prohibitive cost of doing so. In other words, we are unable to clean it up:

Stiv Wilson of the ocean conservation group 5 Gyres has made a first attempt to tally how much plastic is in the global ocean.

In a new post on 5gyres.org, Wilson takes what appears to be the first-ever stab at trying to figure it out.

The number he comes up with is staggering: he conservatively estimates there are 315 billion pounds of plastic in the oceans right now.

Now, Wilson will be the first to admit a lot of assumptions were made in order to arrive at that number, but most of them err on the side of caution. It’s worth going through his thought process and calculations here.

To help visualize that massive heap of trash, Wilson divides by a “supertanker” — that is, a giant ship that could theoretically sail through the seas, skimming out the plastic junk as it goes (much of which hovers down to 90 feet below the surface).

No such ship has been outfitted to skim plastic. But let’s say it did, and it could hold 500 million pounds of plastic. You’d need 630 of them to do the job, or about 17 percent of the planet’s current fleet of oil tankers.


To make it a little more personal, every American produces about 600 pounds of garbage each year. The proportion of plastic varies from household to household, but overall about half of all waste is synthetic. Some of that probably ends up in landfill, or recycled (Wilson says only about 3 percent of virgin plastic gets recycled).

Either way, the pile of plastic you inadvertently dump into the ocean each year is probably more than you can lift.

The point of the calculations is this: cleaning up the plastics in the ocean ain’t gonna happen. Well-intentioned programs designed to take the fight to the high seas, like Project Kaisei and the Environmental Cleanup Coalition, for example, are exercises in futility.

“I’m not trying to call them out,” Wilson told Discovery News. “What I really fear is a barge full of plastic coming in under the Golden Gate bridge, the media taking pictures and people thinking ‘oh good, we’ve solved that problem.'”

A real cleanup would be astronomically expensive, both in terms of dollars and equipment

Other experts have also said there is really no way to clean up the ocean plastic:

According to scientists from the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, the patch is just too large and too “broken down” to be cleanable. As plastic is exposed to the sun, it photodegrades (breaks down) into fine plastic chips. In some areas, the plastic is as fine as dust. Once the plastic turns into dust, it sinks to the bottom of the ocean, making it even more difficult to clean.
…removing plastics from the ocean would expend energy about 250 times plastic’s mass .

The following video is a short documentary made back in 2008 by Vice, but it’s worth the watch to give you an idea of the problem which has gotten worse since then:

View more of the series at http://vice.com/toxic

In his book GARBOLOGYPulitzer Prize-winning author Edward Humes says that the plastic we expel out into the ocean every year is the weight equivalent of 40 aircraft carriers. Since plastic is not biodegradable, it only gets broken down into smaller pieces which persist in the environment, acting as accumulators of hydrophobic pollutants “like DDT, an extremely toxic pesticide, and PCB’s – dangerous persistent organic pollutants. These can be up to one million times more concentrated on the surface of these bits of plastic than they are in the ambient sea water.” Being mistaken for plankton or other food, they get eaten by fish and birds and have now entered the food chain for long into the future. This plastic, as it degrades, also releases chemicals that are endocrine disruptors:

The team analyzed sand and seawater from more than 200 sites in 20 countries, mainly in Southeast Asia and North America. All contained what Saido described as a “significant” amount of BPA, ranging from 0.01 parts per million (ppm) to 50 ppm. They concluded that polycarbonates and epoxy resin coatings and paints were the main source.

Plastics may be the most persistent memory of mankind that we leave behind: