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Documentaries Show Alarming Plastic
And BPA Pollution Destroying Our Oceans

Toxic Garbage Island on (Part 1)

Algalita Marine Research Foundation

Exactly 99 years ago, Leo Hendrik Baekeland invented the first plastic based on a synthetic polymer - Bakelite - and ushered in the age of plastic. From that moment onward, a new kind of pollutant entered the sea; one that took a century or more to degrade.

Some reports estimate that there has been a 90 percent increase in the density of litter over the past decade. More than a third of the garbage found usually consists of fragments of melted plastic, food wrappers, bottle lids and cotton buds.

If you should see this amazing floating pile of plastic pollution in the Pacific Ocean, it's called "The Great Pacific Garbage Patch." It features three million tons of plastic debris floating in an area larger than Texas. An eye-popping 46,000 pieces of plastic float on every square mile of ocean! Humans toss another 2.5 million pieces into our oceans hourly.

While this “trash continent” is not thick enough to be walked on, from the ocean surface to a depth of 30 feet, the plastic is floating at a concentration six times that of its neighboring zooplankton, the most abundant animal type of life both by number and total weight. The plastic can reach concentrations of a million pieces per square mile.

Most of this plastic debris originates from land as trash, being swept out by rivers or the tide. About one fifth comes from ships' cargo and oil platforms. Toothbrushes, cigarette lighters and syringes have accumulated here and everything from Nike sneakers to plastic yellow ducks has been lost from cargo ships.

Captain Paul Watson,, composed an essay, "The Plastic Sea." He wrote a penetrating piece on humanity's desecration of our oceans. If you ever see this plastic 'monster' as I have, it will sicken you to the core of your soul. But the terror it manifests sickens you further!

"We live in a plastic convenience culture; every human being on this planet uses plastic materials directly and indirectly every single day," Watson said. "Our babies begin life on Earth by using some 210 million pounds of plastic diaper liners each year; we give them plastic milk bottles, plastic toys, and buy their food in plastic jars.

Due to undesirable wind patterns, most sailors have avoided this area and a natural lack of nutrients in this ocean region has given fishermen reason to look for fish elsewhere. The translucent quality of the plastic just below the water’s surface prevents satellites from detecting it. These two factors have prevented the sheer vastness of the garbage accumulation from being noticed until recently.

This region of the ocean is called the North Pacific Gyre. Warm tropical air descends in a clockwise rotation over this vast area of over 10 million square miles. These wind patterns create comparable ocean currents which circle around a center point between California and Japan. The nature of the North Pacific Gyre has created two garbage patches on either side of the Hawaiian Islands. The Eastern Pacific Garbage Patch is between California and Hawaii and is twice the size of Texas. The Western Pacific Garbage Patch on the other side of Hawaii is smaller, but still massive. The patches are connected by a 6,000 mile long current which itself can accumulate significant amounts of trash.

All debris that comes within this gyre can be caught in the rotation and concentrated toward the center. The result: 100 million tons of plastic circulating in the northern Pacific according to Charles Moore, the American oceanographer who discovered the extent of this accumulation. This is equal to all the plastic produced by the world in one year.

Until recently, debris in this region did not accumulate because it was easily broken down by microorganisms. However, the production of plastics and their prolific distribution across the globe for the last few decades has been the trump card played to the decomposers of the ocean. Unlike wood and cotton, which can be broken down into such things as carbon dioxide and water within months to years, nothing in the ocean can biodegrade plastics.

The plastic from the 1950s that floated out to the ocean is still there in pieces and will be for a long time.

In the sea, forces of the sun, the waves and collisions with other solids break plastics into smaller pieces and eventually into individual molecules, but this is not the same as biodegradation. As the pieces get smaller they are still plastic and become more harmful. They act like sponges for many chemical toxins, such as DDT and PCBs, and concentrate the toxins up to a million times the levels found in the surrounding water. The plastic pieces, whether mistaken for food or so microscopic as to be unavoidable, are consumed by seabirds and fish, which in turn make it to our dinner plates. This can have disastrous consequences for food webs and human health. Many of these chemicals have hormone disrupting properties that affect both animals and humans.

The world produces at least 100 million tons of plastic each year and about ten percent makes it to the oceans. However, the problem lies deeper than just the surface. About 70 percent of plastic products sink to the bottom. Of the 30 percent that floats, most of it aggregates into patches within gyres. The greatest percentage of plastic pollution affects wildlife the most by either entangling creatures, and by being eaten.

Turtles are particularly badly affected by plastic pollution, and all seven of the world's turtle species are already either endangered or threatened for a number of reasons. Turtles get entangled in fishing nets, and many sea turtles have been found dead with plastic bags in their stomachs. It is believed they mistake these floating semi-transparent bags for jellyfish and eat them. The turtles die from choking or from being unable to eat. One dead turtle found off Hawaii in the Pacific was found to have more than 1000 pieces of plastic in its stomach including part of a comb, a toy truck wheel and nylon rope.

There is great concern about the effect of plastic rubbish on marine mammals in particular, because many of these creatures are already under threat for a variety of other reasons e.g. whale populations have been decimated by uncontrolled hunting. A recent US report concluded that 100 000 marine mammals die each year in the world's oceans by eating or becoming entangled in plastic rubbish, and the position is worsening.When a marine mammal such as a Cape fur seal gets caught up in a large piece of plastic, it may simply drown, or become exhausted and die of starvation due to the greater effort needed to swim, or the plastic may kill slowly over a period of months or years as it bites into the animal causing wounds, loss of blood and/or severing of limbs.

A large number of marine creatures become trapped and killed in "ghost nets". These are pieces of gill nets which have been lost by fishing vessels. Other pieces of fishing equipment such as lobster pots may also keep trapping creatures.

World-wide, 75 marine bird species are known to eat plastic articles. This includes 36 species found off South Africa. A recent study of blue petrel chicks at South Africa's remote Marion Island showed that 90% of chicks examined had plastic in their stomachs apparently fed to them accidentally by their parents. South African seabirds are among the worst affected in the world. Plastics may remain in the stomachs, blocking digestion and possibly causing starvation. As particular species seem to be badly affected this may be a threat to whole populations of these birds.

There are also great quantities of the trash from these garbage patches which are being washed daily up on shores, covering beaches in California and especially the islands of Hawaii.

Chris Parry, a public education program manager who works for the California Coastal Commission in San Francisco said, "At this point, cleaning it up isn't an option. It's just going to get bigger as our reliance on plastics continues... The long-term solution is to stop producing as much plastic products at home and change our consumption habits."

The solutions are tough to swallow sometimes, especially when it could mean completely removing common and convenient plastic products out of our lives. Moreover, cleaning up this vast quantity of plastic and garbage would cost billions of dollars. Despite the high price tag, the consequences of creating so much permanent trash should be talked about.

Everyday changes can help to limit the growth of this garbage patch. Reducing your use and purchasing of plastic products will lower the production of plastics. Properly disposing of plastics that you come into contact with will slow their accumulation in the environment.

What Can You Do?

  • Buy products with less Plastic packaging and tell store Personnel why you are doing so. Shoppers should use their own bags or recycled paper bags.

  • Support recycling schemes and promote support for one in your local area.

  • Fishermen throughout South Africa should not throw away waste line, net or plastic litter - this causes huge suffering and many deaths.

  • Practice and promote proper disposal of plastics in your home and at the beach. Always remember that litter generates litter. Never dispose of plastics in the sewage system.

  • At the beach dispose of plastics and other litter in the bins provided. If these facilities are inadequate, contact the local authority responsible and lodge a complaint. Take your litter back home with you if there are no receptacles on the beach. Pick up any plastic litter you may see on the beach or in rock pools in the vicinity in which you are sitting or walking. Encourage young children to do likewise.

  • In the street never throw plastic or other litter out of your car or drop it on the pavement or in the gutter.

  • Set an example to others and encourage them to help. Plastics are not themselves a problem. They are useful and popular materials which can be produced with relatively little damage to the environment. The problem is the excessive use of plastics in one-off applications together with careless disposal.

Take Action:


  • More articles on BPA

Reference Sources
April 30, 2008


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