PACIFIC OCEAN - Plastics, like diamonds, are virtually forever and now they are everywhere in our modern society. We drink out of plastic conatiners, eat off of them, sit on them and even drive in them. Plastics are durable, lightweight, inexpensive and can be made into almost anything. But it is these useful properties of plastics that make them so harmful when they end up in the environment.
An albatross carcass shows how much plastic the great birds can ingest from the Pacific Ocean. There is a large part of the central Pacific that only a few ever pass through. Sailors avoid it like the plague for it lacks the wind they need to sail and fishermen leave it alone because its lack of nutrients makes it an oceanic desert.
This area includes the "horse latitudes," where ships in the age of sail got stranded, ran out of food and water and had to jettison even their horses while being trapped in the doldrums. This is the largest ocean realm on our planet, being over twice the size of Texas. A huge mountain of air, which has been heated at the equator, and then begins descending in a gentle clockwise rotation as it approaches the North Pole, creates this ocean realm. Scientists call this the subtropical high and the ocean current it creates as the central Pacific gyre.
Because of the stability of this gentle maelstrom, it is also an accumulator of the debris of civilization. Anything that floats, no matter where it comes from on the Pacific Rim, ends up here. Unfortunately plastic photo-degrades, a process in which it is broken down by sunlight into smaller and smaller pieces, all of which are still plastic polymers, eventually becoming individual molecules of plastic, still too tough for anything to digest.
Center of the messCharles Moore of Santa Barbara News-Press' latest three-month round-trip research voyage got closer to the center of the garbage patch than before and found levels of plastic fragments that were far higher than estimated for hundreds of miles. He noted jellyfish hopelessly entangled in frayed line with colorful plastic fragments in their bellies. Ninety percent of Hawaiian green sea turtles eat the debris, mistaking it for their natural food, as do laysan and black-footed albatross. Indeed, the stomach contents of laysan albatross look like the cigarette lighter shelf at a convenience store they contain so many of them.
The Pacific gyre also attracts large objects. In 2003 Stephen Brown took his sailing sloop, Southbound, for a trip out of Moro Bay near San Diego. After 800 miles of drifting a freighter discovered the vessel and the log of Brown's demise in a storm. The freighter was unable to tow the Southbound for fear of swamping it and the 38-foot boat eventually rode the gyre over 4,050 miles in 144 days, an average of 28 miles per day, before being recovered near Hawaii, according to Curtis Ebbesmeyer in Beachcomber's Alert. He mentions a tobacco jar lid dated from 1915 as another find in the gyre.
Sponges for toxinsIt turns out that plastic polymers are also sponges for DDT, PCBs and oily toxics that don't dissolve in seawater. Plastic pellets have been found to accumulate up to one million times the level of these poisons that are floating in the water itself. These are not like heavy metal poisons that affect the animal that ingests them directly. Rather, they are what might be called second-generation toxics that are able to affect reproduction in some species.
"A trillion vectors for our worst pollutants are being ingested by the most efficient natural vacuum cleaners nature ever invented, the mucus web feeding jellies out in the middle of the ocean. These organisms are in turn eaten by fish and the fish by humans," Moore said.
"The plastic particles can't be vacuumed up because the fragments are mixed below the surface down to at least a depth of 100 feet. Only elimination of the source of the problem can result in an ocean nearly free from plastic, and the desired result only will be seen by citizens of the third millennium," he concluded.
Tripled in past decadeIt is estimated that the levels of plastic particulates in the Pacific have at least tripled in the last 10 years and a tenfold increase in the next decade is not unreasonable. Then, 60 times more plastic than plankton will float on the surface of the Pacific according to Moore.
San Francisco has already begun the fight by outlawing plastic sacks in its retail stores, but a more concerted effort will need to be made world-wide. "A market crash will pale by comparison to an ecological crash on an oceanic scale if we don't take care of the great Pacific garbage patch now," Moore concludes.
That fight can begin by recycling every plastic container and by continued beach and stream-side cleanup projects.