Message In a Bottle
[Rachel's Introduction: Trash twice the size of the continental United States is collecting in the North Pacific, but here's the kicker: most of it is made to last forever.]
One sunny day 10 years ago, Captain Charles Moore was sailing home from a yacht race in Hawaii when he steered his boat off-course in search of a little adventure in the North Pacific. Heading north in his 50-foot catamaran, Alguita, Moore wanted to graze the lower Eastern corner of a rarely sailed region, the North Pacific subtropical gyre, before making his way home to Long Beach, California.
The most remarkable characteristic of the gyre, a 10-million-square- foot, clockwise-churning vortex of four converging ocean currents, was supposed to be its unique weather pattern. It's a high-pressure area, meaning that warm air hovers over it. The air is still. There's no wind. Picture an immense oceanic desert. Frustrated sailors long ago christened the area "the doldrums" and avoided it, as do predatory fish who find no prey within its calm, nutrient-lean depths. "It almost looks like an oil slick, or like a mirror. It's really beautiful, the phenomena of a very smooth ocean," says researcher Dr. Marcus Eriksen.
But as Moore ventured into the gyre, his fascination with weather patterns gave way to a different reaction -- alarm. In this most remote part of the ocean, his expectation of the pristine was met by blight.
A vast array of trash -- bottle caps, plastic bottles, fishing floats, wrappers, plastic bags and fragments, many tiny plastic fragments -- stretched before Moore as far as the eye could see. His alarm turned to shock. It took him a week to sail through the gyre, the debris surrounding his boat the entire time.
Dr. Marcus Eriksen considers his first encounter with the gyre to have occurred on the beach in 2001 while teaching bird biology to high school students. This particular beach belonged to Midway Atoll, the last island of the Hawaiian Archipelago. "I noticed the hundreds of carcasses of Laysan albatrosses," says Eriksen. "Every single one had a handful of plastic inside its rib cage." He quickly made the connection between the plastic pieces and their stark resemblance in ocean waters to the fish, squid and krill that serve as staples of the foraging albatross' diet. "I knew there was this floating plastic that these birds were consuming," he says. "That got me interested in the issue."
Four years later, Eriksen became director of research and education for the Algalita Marine Research Foundation (AMRF), the nonprofit that Moore founded after discovering the gyre. Together, Moore, whose resume reads like a coming-of-age at sea story -- deck hand, stock tender, able seaman and now captain -- and Eriksen, a Marine who served in the first Gulf War, have made several trips back to the gyre to research the content and extent of its massive pollution and monitor its growth. When not at sea, the two men are working tirelessly to educate the public as to its existence and causes.
So Rubber Duckie, You're
By now, you may have heard reports of the enormous "trash patch" forming in the North Pacific gyre, as major news outlets have a two- minute, sound-bite love affair with the gyre's pervasive description.
"It's twice the size of Texas," they say. "It's an incredible, floating, plastic island in the middle of the ocean."
"Twice the size of Texas is inaccurate. I wouldn't use that anymore," says Eriksen, who returned on Feb. 28 from AMRF's latest 4,000-mile research mission, during which he spent a solid four weeks in the gyre, running experiments. "If you want to give folks an idea of the extent of pollution in this gyre, I'd say twice the size of the continental United States is the best way to put it."
THIN PLASTIC SOUP
Plastic and plankton duke it out in a 6:1 ratio in this one-mile trawl sample from the North Pacific Gyre. The "floating plastic island" metaphor, which may very well have been the gyre's one-way ticket to urban legend, is also out. The details of the truth that stand in its wake, however, are much more pernicious. "It's not a plastic patch. There is no island out there," explains Eriksen. But if it's still the salient metaphor you're after, Eriksen is armed with one. "I'd say endless from Hawaii to L.A. is a thin plastic soup. The rope and the netting and the monofilament line, all the fishing gear that's out there, there's a lot of that, we'll call that the noodles.
The vegetables are all the big stuff, like the fishing floats and the plastic bottles. We found a suitcase floating around...big chunks of Styrofoam, tons of bottles, milk crates, fishing crates. I found a laundry basket that had something like 20 fish in it. And when I picked it up, they wouldn't get out of it."
Oceanographers estimate that the amount of trash currently percolating in the gyre weighs in at 3.5 million tons and extends 300 feet beneath the ocean surface. So the question begs to be asked: where is it all coming from? About 20 percent of the debris results from spillage and dumping at sea. High seas and turbulent storms coax entire cargo containers into choppy waters (remember the 80,000 Nike shoes lost from the Hansa Carrier in 1990 and the 29,000 "rubber duckies" that, in a moment of grave irony, were washed overboard from their cargo ship in 1992?), passenger vessels dispose of waste in what appears to be a conveniently unaccountable location, and both commercial and recreational fishing vessels lose their equipment or simply toss it overboard to evade costly disposal fees at port. As for the other 80 percent, that's coming from land -- litter that's left in piles on the beach, overflowing garbage cans, sloppy trash transport and industries' lax disposal methods. Let's say, for instance, a plastic bottle is discarded on the street here in Santa Cruz. Aided by wind, it finds its way into one of the gaping storm drains that line the streets, the ones subsequently posted with the warning "no dumping, drains straight to Bay." If you ever harbored any doubts as to whether these signs make good on their promise, the answer is yes. "It's simply gravity flows," explains Bill Kocher, director of the City of Santa Cruz Water Department. "There are underground pipes, so when something goes into an inlet like that, it flows into sort of a concrete basin and there's a pipe that exits that basin. And then it'll just flow from there by gravity, usually to a waterway like a creek before it hits the Bay.
Once in the Bay, our bottle begins about a two-week journey out to sea, where approximately 500 miles off of our shore, it catches a current from the gyre and joins the congregating purgatory of trash gathering at the gyre's core like bubbles amassing in the center of a hot tub. In the ten years since it began monitoring the gyre's trash burden, AMRF estimates that it's increased five-fold. "That's a conservative estimate," says Eriksen.
"We'll know more when we analyze all of the samples from our latest voyage."
Heading for the Breakdown
Oddly enough, the main concern over what is now considered to be the world's largest landfill aren't the facts that it exists at all or is growing at such an alarming rate. It's that the majority of it is plastic. A report issued by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) states that plastics comprise 60 to 80 percent of the ocean's total trash, as well as 90 percent of all floating marine debris.
Why the focus on plastic? Because it's synthetic, so unlike other debris, it doesn't biodegrade. Instead, it photodegrades; UV light from the sun breaks it down into smaller and smaller pieces until you have countless plastic particles, and eventually a fine plastic dust.
Revisiting Eriksen's "soup metaphor," these plastic shards, particles and dust are what he calls the "broth."
"Looking down from the bow of our ship, you could see a very spaced- out confetti of plastic particles," says Eriksen. "A lot of it is microscopic, things are degrading into basically polymer-size molecules, which you really can't see with the lot of it is microscopic, things are degrading into basically polymer- size molecules, which you really can't see with the naked eye." While in the gyre, AMRF researchers use a manta trawl, a super fine mesh net ("it's smaller than the holes in your T-shirt," says Eriksen) to collect samples of seawater in order to measure its concentration of plastic. So far, AMRF's samples have yielded a ratio of six parts plastic to one part plankton -- that's six times as much plastic as plankton in the middle of the ocean.
Pictures Worth 1,000 Statistics
Nowhere have the consequences of the gyre's trash manifested more horrifically than in the effects it has had on marine life. One million seabirds, 100,000 marine animals and numerous fish die each year, either mistaking debris for food or becoming entangled within it and drowning. A report from the UNEP states that these harmful effects have impacted 86 percent of all sea turtles, 44 percent of all seabird species and 43 percent of all marine mammals.
Clinical statistics aside, pictures evoke a sincere moral indignation -- a sea lion is choked by a plastic ring carving into the flesh around its neck; monofilament fishing line cuts into the flippers of a sea turtle, drawing blood; even a whale ensnared by nets and gear drags them along behind it, the ropes digging into its back.
It's too large to drown, but it can't hunt and will eventually starve.
According to the National Oceanographic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), 90 percent of Laysan albatross chick carcasses contain plastic. The chicks don't make it off the beach; it's their parents that fly thousands of miles out over the gyre, to bring back faux- nourishment in the form of pieces of plastic and plastic bag that in ghosting the water's surface look identical to krill and squid. The chicks can't digest it and die within days.
Eriksen mentions the ongoing partnership AMRF has with NOAA in which it helps them to tag ghost nets. "They're these mountains of derelict fishing gear abandoned in the ocean," Eriksen explains. Fish and animals get trapped within them, they can't hunt and/or they can't breathe and so they die. If AMRF finds one, they attach a satellite buoy to it so NOAA can track and remove it. "They're too big for us," he says. "This last time, we actually found a two-and-a-half ton net floating around, just full of fish under it. So we put a buoy on it."
But while the effects of the gyre's plastic debris on marine life have been severe and immediate, scientists are accruing evidence that its repercussions for humans, at the genetic level, may be even worse in the long run.
Et tu, Nalgene?
Simply put, plastic is made from petroleum-based synthetic polymers to which chemicals are added to achieve certain characteristics, like inflammability and malleability. These chemical additives certainly aren't the kind of thing you'd want to ingest by any means. In fact, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines them as persistent organic pollutants (POP) or toxins that "persist in the environment for long periods and biomagnify as they move up the food chain," and classifies many of them as known carcinogens. They do, however, come into awfully close contact with our food and beverages, as well as items we use everyday, and as such, our ingestion of them has become unavoidable.
Take phthalates for instance -- deemed as a "known human carcinogen" by the World Health Organization, it's added to polyvinyl chloride (PVC) to make products soft and supple. Ever notice how oily the inside of a bag of potato chips gets? It turns out that oil would eat away at the bag if not being prevented from doing so by a film of PVC. The chemical, also found in shrink wrap, cosmetics and toys, was banned by Gov. Schwarzenegger last August in toys manufactured for children aged 3 and under, and on Feb. 21, AB 2505, a bill that would phase out PVC packaging, was introduced to the California legislature. Keep in mind that the use of PVC was phased in in 1926.
Then there's bisphenol A (BPA), which, as an additive to polycarbonates, is commonly found in dental sealants, the resin linings of food and drink cans and, most ubiquitously, plastic bottles, from single-use water bottles to trusty Nalgene canteens to baby bottles. The chemical, of which six billion pounds is produced annually, is increasingly being identified in scientific studies as a hormone disrupter that mimics estrogen and leaches into foods and liquids. A Time magazine article published on Feb. 8 casts BPA as a "parents' nightmare" while describing a study in which researchers tested 19 baby bottles bought from the U.S. and Canada. Every single bottle, when heated to 175 degrees F, leached BPA, and while government health and environment agencies in both countries are still declaring the additive to be safe in small amounts, health-oriented stores like Whole Foods and Patagonia have ditched their entire stocks of polycarbonate bottles.
And that's just two on a list of pollutants that are increasingly present in our environment. How do they relate to ocean plastics? The answer is twofold. As plastic breaks down into micro-particles, it not only retains these chemicals, it absorbs more of them, like a sponge.
In a study published in the Nov. 15 issue of Environmental Science and Technology, British researchers at the University of Plymouth reported that when marine worms were exposed to microplastics that contained a high concentration of a specific toxin, the tissues of the worms showed an 80 percent increase in accumulation of the toxin. The study concludes that microplastics have the unique potential to transport pollutants throughout the ocean ecosystem and global environment.
Asking ourselves how many of these ubiquitous pollutants we can actually name, it's worth taking a moment to contemplate our role at the top of the food chain, as well as just how informed we feel as to the contents of our water supply and what ends up on our plates.
Considering the community's vigorous unease with the recent Light Brown Apple Moth aerial spraying, why is there not more outrage?
A Fool's Head in the Sand
The urge to feel overwhelmed at this point is dually noted. An initial swipe at optimism floats the question; "OK, so how do we clean it?"
The short-term answer is a bit of a let down. "There is no way to clean it right now," says Eriksen. Note, this isn't a vote for hopelessness, it's merely an indication of the immense scope of the problem, as well as of the complications involved in addressing it.
For instance, no single country has jurisdiction over the gyre. "Once you get beyond our coastal waters, it's an international zone that no one owns," explains Eriksen, making it a true global issue. As you can then imagine, nations aren't exactly clamoring to claim responsibility for a clean-up strategy that even the scientists and politicians who have been vaguely willing to consider it, lowball as beginning in the billions.
As a result, a common response has been a kind of c'est la vie apathy.
After all, it's been our practice to tacitly designate some areas of this planet for aesthetic preservation, while others seem destined to hide our actions' most deleterious consequences. Maybe the North Pacific subtropical gyre just drew a short straw, so to speak.
Unfortunately, there are four other high-pressure oceanic systems in the South Pacific, North and South Atlantic and Indian Ocean, respectively. Together, estimates the AMRF, these waters comprise 40 percent of the planet's oceans and roughly 25 percent of the Earth's surface. As to the likelihood that trash exists in these waters as well, Eriksen seems certain.
"Oh, it's global," he says. "Everywhere I go, I see trash. I've gone scuba-diving in Vietnam, walking the beaches in Peru, walking across train tracks in Tanzania. Plastics are on every beach I've gone to."
So the out-of-sight, out-of-mind strategy is not going to fly. Another common reaction has been denial. Search the gyre online and you'll find many exasperated posts, demanding "well, where are the satellite pictures?" followed by bold declarations of continued skepticism until such photo-documentation of a true "trash island" is produced. While such a head-in-the-sand strategy might conjure momentary psychological relief, it's ultimately thwarted by such explanations as the fact that the trash is constantly mobile in the gyre's currents, it is often not in large enough clumps to register as a "detectable object" on satellite radar, if you'll recall, it's believed to extend 300 feet below the ocean's surface and considering the scope of the challenge presented by plastic particles that appear no larger than "confetti pieces" when viewed from the deck of a ship, let alone microplastics, our pictures of proof might be better sought through the lens of viewed from the deck of a ship, let alone microplastics, our pictures of proof might be better sought through the lens of an electron microscope.
Thank You for Plasticizing
"The best thing to do now," says Eriksen, "is to adopt the mantra of physicians: 'Do no more harm.' The way you do that is to stop allowing plastic to enter the ocean and the best way to do that is to, as a culture, stop using disposable plastics."
Here, Eriksen makes a crucial distinction. The advent of plastics has been revolutionary in terms of its benefits to society within the last century -- combat helmets, bulletproof vests, lifesaving medical equipment, not to mention its widespread applications in the computer electronics, aerospace, building and transportation industries. But in the last 50 years, and even more so, within the last 20 years, the use of plastic for single-use products and packaging has skyrocketed.
Plastics are now the fastest-growing material in municipal solid waste streams nationwide. One only need visit a grocery store for evidence; while the plastic bags assembled at the checkout counter have garnered the most international attention in recent months, don't fail to notice the rows and rows of foodstuffs encased in plastic in say, the freezer section, the pre-washed salad corner or the wall of pre- packaged deli meats and cheeses. And those are just the food-related plastics.
According to the American Chemistry Council (ACC), the nation's largest chemical and plastic manufacturers, the U.S. has nearly doubled its annual plastic resin production in the last two decades to almost 120 billion pounds in 2007, compared to the just under 60 billion pounds it produced in 1987. The average American is said to consume 185 pounds of plastic each year.
The overwhelming presence of hyper-disposable plastics has led scientists and concerned citizens alike to raise two burning questions: Why have we so vigorously produced products that contain chemicals of which we have no appropriate and/or safe method of disposal? and, why have we created so many products and packaging intended for single-use, yet made to last forever?
"We're a culture of consumption, we're a throw-away society," says Eriksen. "The use of disposable plastics, it has to end, and what's going to be most effective is a ban on those plastics."
Not surprisingly, this isn't anything close to what the billion-dollar plastics industry has in mind. In comments made to both the Associated Press and the San Francisco Chronicle in the last six months, Keith Christman, a senior director of packaging for the ACC, has come out in strong opposition of production being slowed, recommending instead the Council's willingness to help install additional recycling bins on beaches, and even stating that "plastic bags are a very good environmental choice" when viewed in context with the amount of carbon emissions generated by trucks delivering the same amount of paper bags to retailers.
Rocking the Cradle-to-Cradle
While the importance of recycling can't be discounted, putting more recycling bins on the beach is hardly a sufficient antidote to the global plague that is non-essential, hyper-disposable plastics.
According to the EPA, in 2006, only 2.04 million tons of the 29.5 million tons of plastic generated in the U.S. was collected for recycling. That's just under seven percent. And while not to be undervalued, plastic recycling is riddled with caveats; of those seven auspicious, numbered triangles found on so many types of plastic, only those bearing the numbers one (PET) and two (HDPE) can be recycled to any great effect. Thanks to plastic's low melting temperature and pesky additives, recycled plastic often requires a layer of virgin plastic to prevent old toxins from contaminating the new product, which even then can't be trusted as a food container. Plus, new plastic is simply much cheaper to make.
Furthermore, Eriksen argues, the burden of responsibility and consciousness, when it comes to the appropriate use of plastics, can't be borne by the consumer alone. As evidence, he reframes our well- oiled municipal waste management systems in stark contrast to the situation in many third-world countries. "The developed world has given this technology of synthetic materials to the undeveloped world," he says, "and they have no infrastructure to deal with it... We have a disposable global culture, and to have these persistent materials be part of that culture of convenience is not sustainable."
This is why Eriksen's approach to the issue consists of a multi-tiered attack on four fronts: legislation, re-design, research and education.
"There are changes on the horizon," he says, mentioning measures like California AB 2449, research and education. "There are changes on the horizon," he says, mentioning measures like California AB 2449, which went into effect last July and requires large grocery stores and retailers to offer both in-store recycling bins for plastic bags and an affordable option to purchase reusable bags. This is, of course, a baby step in comparison to China's recent nationwide ban on free plastic bags, which will take effect June 1. "One-sixth of the world's population just stopped using plastic bags," says Eriksen. "It's amazing."
Also worth noting is California AB 258, which Gov. Schwarzenegger signed into law last October. The bill established a task force to regulate the release of plastic resin pellets called "nurdles" into the marine environment. More than 250 billion pounds of these pellets, which are the raw materials used to make plastic consumer products, are shipped to factories worldwide via rail tank car each year, and spills are frequent in massive quantity both at sea and on land due to careless industry procedure. A report released by Greenpeace states that at least 70 species of marine animals ingest nurdles, also called "mermaid tears," mistaking them for fish eggs.
On the re-design front, there's promise in biodegradable plastics derived from corn and starch sources that are gradually appearing as alternatives to garbage bags and restaurant take-out utensils. "But we also have to consider zero-waste design technologies," stresses Eriksen, invoking the "cradle-to-cradle" design philosophy championed by green architect and designer William McDonough that envisions the development of goods and services that can be used, recycled and reused without sacrificing material integrity. "We have to transition to that."
And finally, Eriksen reinforces the need for continued research on the effects of plastic pollution and the constant monitoring of debris in the gyre, as well as the push to increase educational outreach. His exact words with regard to education are "pounding the pavement to get the word out," an understatement from a man who, in 2005, shortly before he joined AMRF, built a raft entirely out of plastic bottles and sailed it 2,000 miles down the Mississippi River to bring attention to the issue.
"One thing I came away with from this most recent gyre voyage is a sense of urgency," says Eriksen. "We have to act now. A fivefold increase in ten years, we can't let that happen in another ten."
What can we do?
** Avoid plastic bags and plastic packaging when possible.
** Avoid any packaging when you can. Buy in bulk and bring your own cloth bags when shopping
** Call the 1-800 number of the company that uses plastic packaging (usually listed on the product's package). Give them this web site of an article about plastic pollution. http://www.gtweekly.com/good
** Even better, visit their web site (also listed on the package) and email them this article as a PDF attachment
** Tell them you like their product but encourage them to seek out biodegradable packaging.