Pacific Ocean: A Pool of Plastic

It’s become hip to avoid plastic. Designer stores offer trendy paper and cloth bags for purchases. College students proudly carry ‘I AM NOT A PLASTIC BAG’ jute totes, loudly proclaiming their eco-friendliness. Yet, deep down, it’s hard to avoid plastic in every form. Our shampoo bottles, cups of chai at the roadside vendor and food wrappers are plastic. So no matter how anti-plastic we aim to be, we aren’t entirely. It seems impossible to give it up. Plus, what’s a little extra plastic anyway? One day a forgotten jute bag can be substituted by its non-biodegradable component, right? That little extra plastic bag is the source of one of the biggest environmental calamities mankind may be facing soon- a garbage patch in the Pacific Ocean twice the size of the United States.

Discovered first in 1997, by ocean researcher Charles Moore, The Great Pacific Garbage Patch or the Pacific Trash Vortex is an area encircled by wind currents of the Northern Pacific Gyre which swirls the water around endlessly, trapping debris and wastes in these parts. This waste is mostly plastic, 80% of it is land based garbage, the remaining from vessels at sea. The exact extent of this patch is indeterminable, as it keeps moving and expanding. Also, the plastic debris have broken up into fragments and sunk below the surface which make it impossible to detect by satellite imaging.

While it was previously thought that plastic took hundreds of years to degrade, scientists have found that plastic in the ocean degrades within a year of its introduction in water. This is not good news. The chemicals found in plastic slowly leach into the sea as it breaks down, one of them being Bisphenol A which interferes with the reproductive system of animals. The plastic fragments in the ocean have become small enough for marine organisms to ingest them and the toxins pass through their digestive systems, poisoning them and concentrating in the human system when we digest them. That aside, the plastics form a sponge like layer on the surface which absorbs and hold chemicals creating a toxic environment.

While the developed nations like USA fend off blows from the developing world on all things climate change, especially related to the West’s carbon footprint, this problem is not restricted to them. The world’s garbage, about 26 million tons of it, is floating in our seas. Asia’s plastic takes just a year to reach the Pacific Ocean. The marine ecosystem is vital to our survival on earth. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, the world’s fish harvest was 93.2 million tonnes in 2005. We cannot turn our source of food and economic wealth into a dead zone.

Where there is despair, there is also hope and there are people caring for the environment and cleaning up mankind’s messes. Richard Owen, a scuba instructor in Maui, Hawaii founded the Environmental Cleanup Coalition in 2008 to address this issue by raising funds for research. Project Kaisei, started by the Ocean Voyages Institute an NGO was started in 2009 with the intention of taking samples of the debris and observing the extent of the pollution. The aim of the mission is to figure out a commercially viable cleanup process in the Pacific Ocean, with the possibility of recycling the waste into alternate fuel or products. In mid-2010, the mission’s ships will set sail to test a number of cleanup technologies which will not harm the marine organisms when the plastic is removed. Organisations and researchers are joining hands to combat this problem. What can we, as individuals do? Don’t litter the beach, try to avoid plastics as much as you can, because though the sea seems to swallow everything we throw at it, our garbage lurks thousands of miles away, a threat that we need to know about.

Vrinda Manocha