We live in a “throwaway” society. Everything from our morning coffees to our dinner to our toothpaste are designed to be thrown away immediately after consumption. Our waste systems take an “out of sight, out of mind” approach, hiding massive piles of garbage that slowly decompose under mounds of earth. But is our trash decomposing fast enough? As the earth’s population has grown so has our trash output and landfills are becoming overwhelmed by the amount of garbage we produce. But what happens to the “unburied” trash: the litter we see on the streets or beach every day?
The question is where this garbage goes.
The sad truth is that most of this trash ends up in oceans, which make up approximately 71% of the earth’s surface. If so much trash ends up in the ocean, how is not cluttered with coffee cups and plastic bags? While stray bits of plastic are visible throughout the ocean, most of the plastic concentrates in gyres, high pressure systems created by the circular motion of winds and ocean currents. These gyres draw circulating trash into one central location, like the “Giant Pacific Garbage Patch” — located between the west coast of the US and Hawaii. The Garbage Patch is not a solid island of trash. Scientists who have gone to study the patch describe it as a “trash soup” largely composed of micro-plastics, tiny bits of floating plastic. So while there are stray ghost nets, containers, and other large items lost at sea the biggest problems are coming from the smallest plastics.
(A map of the largest gyres in the world)
The problem with plastic has always been its lifespan; while plastics may slowly break down into smaller pieces the actual plastic does not degrade. So instead of accumulating as plastic bags, snack wrappers, and other consumer goods it breaks down into bits as small as plankton. While large plastics and garbage are known for entangling animals these smaller plastics pose an equally dangerous threat: ingestion. Animals that filter feed plankton out of water as their source of nutrients are now taking in just as much or more plastic, which remains in their system. This is prevalent in shore birds, whose skeletons have been found on beaches completely filled with plastic bits.
(Micro-plastics found in the Giant Pacific Garbage Patch)
Scientists, engineers, and activists are still looking for solutions, but the key is YOU! Cleaning the ocean doesn’t matter if we are simply going to keep adding more plastics and trash. So look for biodegradable and reusable replacements to your everyday plastics – bring a reusable mug to your favorite coffee shop, bring reusable bags when you go shopping, and pick up litter you see on the streets. Remember, there’s no away in throwaway.
For more information on gyres check out www.5gyres.org.