Sunday, April 13, 2008

The world's largest dump

Well, the good news today is that we may have located that basketball that you lost six years ago. The bad news is that it has been floating in the Pacific Ocean all this time…that is if a shark hasn’t eaten it yet.

From the “not exactly news” department, we bring you the story of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in the North Pacific Ocean. Measuring in at about twice the size of Texas, this part of the ocean has become a collection point for all sorts of trash from around the Pacific Rim. There is probably 3.5 million tons of trash, 80 percent plastics, jest kinda floatin’ ‘round in da sea.

We’re not talking about a solid mass of garbage, resembling the eighth continent. Instead, imagine sailing out to one of the most remote sections of the Pacific Ocean and finding soda bottles, cigarette lighters, grocery bags from both California and Japan, medical waste and hockey gloves every few feet. Garbage Island has been around since the 1950s, coinciding with the beginning of the widespread commercial use of plastics.

Most of this garbage is produced on land and is carried to this point in the ocean and trapped there by ocean currents. This spot is called the North Pacific Gyre. Here is a graphic showing the relevant ocean currents:

Obviously, this is nothing new and trash has probably been accumulating in this section of the ocean for as long as humans have been dumping trash. The problem is that, unlike at the beginning of the 20th century, human garbage consists more and more of plastics. Carbon-based trash like wood, rotten food, and even sewage degrades easily and subsequently acts as nutrients for aquatic life. Plastics take longer to degrade and then degrade into smaller bits of plastic, which fish and birds can easily eat. That’s not good for the aquatic life.

This is suddenly news again because the filmmakers at VBS.TV took a trip out to the garbage island and are posting on their website 12 episodes of their documentary Garbage Island. (Just a word of caution: there is some strong language in the video.) AS of today, they are up to episode five. The Traditional Media have taken notice. Here is a link to ABC News’ report on the documentary.

h/t to POAC for posting the story originally.

So what can be done? Considering the costs of a clean up, there is probably nothing that can be done right now other than to limit the amount of plastic that we use. One person in the documentary pointed out that Subway Restaurants put every sub in a plastic bag. You use that bag for a grand total of a few minutes before eating the sub and tossing the bag. San Francisco passed a ban on plastic grocery bags last year, according to the previously linked story in the Chronicle.

Of course, when the rest of the state tried to follow suit, our good friends in the plastics lobbying business managed to kill the idea. Thanks, guys. We appreciate it. Now we can all be secure in the knowledge that we will never have to buy a few reusable canvas bags, nor will we ever have to make the decision between “paper or plastic.”

I guess I’ll have to go out and buy some of these:


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