In 1997, sailor and oceanographer, Charles Moore, was on the return voyage to Long Beach, California after having competed in the Transpac sailing race which begins in Los Angeles and ends in Hawaii, when he and his crew aboard the Alguita encountered an endless sea of plastic in the North Pacific subtropical gyre.
In an article Moore wrote for Natural History, he writes, "I often struggle to find words that will communicate the vastness of the Pacific Ocean to people who have never been to sea. Day after day, Alguita was the only vehicle on a highway without landmarks, stretching from horizon to horizon. Yet as I gazed from the deck at the surface of what ought to have been a pristine ocean, I was confronted, as far as the eye could see, with the sight of plastic. It seemed unbelievable, but I never found a clear spot. In the week it took to cross the subtropical high, no matter what time of day I looked, plastic debris was floating everywhere: bottles, bottle caps, wrappers, fragments. "
Moore encountered this sea of trash - now known as the 'Eastern Garbage Patch (EGP)' which makes up one half of the 'Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GGP)' - while unhurriedly returning to Long Beach after the race in what is often referred to as the Horse Latitudes. This area lies between 30 and 38 degrees north and is characterized as as an area of high pressures with light winds. There in the convergence zone of the North Pacific Gyre lies an area estimated to be roughly the size of Texas containing 4 particles per cubic meter totaling an estimated 100M tons of plastic and other debris.
Plastics do not biodegrade, but instead slowly photodegrade, which is a process whereby larger plastic debris fractures due to lengthy sun exposure into smaller and smaller pieces. These pieces remain in the ocean for an incredibly long time and greatly damage the ecosystem, killing marine life by both suffocation and also by blocking digestive systems causing starvation, as well as leaching dangerous chemical pollutants including BPA (Bisphenol A), PCBs, and derivatives of polystyrene.
As the pieces become smaller and smaller, the plastics enter the food chain as fish mistake these micro plastics for plankton and other small nutrients. In a 2001 study, researches determined that the overall concentration of plastics in the area of the EGP was seven times greater than the concentration of plankton. Naturally, fish eating this plankton are later eaten by larger fish and these plastics and the associated chemicals make it back to our tables.
On nearby Midway Atoll, nearly all of the 1.5M Laysan albatrosses are found to have plastic in their digestive system, where approximately one third of all chicks die due to being fed plastic from their parents. Unlike adult albatrosses, the babies cannot regurgitate accidentally ingested plastics and so either choke or die from blocked digestive tracks.
Sea turtles commonly mistake plastic bags for jelly fish causing choking and death. Whales are washing up dead on beaches around the world with large quantities of plastic found in their stomachs.
Plastic refuse and nets get dragged along reefs, breaking off chunks and permanently damaging the coral.
What then can we do to reverse course, change our behaviors, and reduce this catastrophie?
In a NOAA podcast interview, NOAA's Marine Debris Program communications specialist Dianna Parker notes the need to address not just the current plastic waste floating in the ocean, but also the sources, "We did some quick calculations that if you tried to clean up less than one percent of the North Pacific Ocean it would take 67 ships one year to clean up that portion. And the bottom line is that until we prevent debris from entering the ocean at the source, it's just going to keep congregating in these areas. We could go out and clean it all up and then still have the same problem on our hands as long as there's debris entering the ocean."
"There's so much that we can do to keep debris from entering the ocean. It's as simple as changing your individual behavior every day, creating less waste, reusing what you can, remembering to recycle ... littering is obviously a no-no. And then going out and joining a beach clean up. It's difficult to really understand the problem until you get out there and see it first-hand, how bad the problem is."
So, is the situation hopeless?
Dianna Parker continues: "It's not a hopeless situation. Marine debris is absolutely a solvable problem because it comes from us humans and our everyday practices. We can take any number of steps to keep it from entering the ocean and that can happen at the highest level with governments and it can happen at the lowest level individuals and everyday choices."
10 Things You Can Do To Help Reduce Ocean Plastic Waste
1. Support plastic trash bag bans in your local communities, municipality, state, or federal government.
2. Stop buying plastic water bottles and carry a reusable canteen instead. It takes a single plastic bottle over 400 years to disintigrate! That bottle you just drank this morning will still be around in 2,416!!!
3. Attend a beach clean up and pay attention not just to the large pieces, but also the micro plastics! Use a mesh sand sifter or other device (see: sand sifters) to assist you in collecting these insidious, small pieces that work their way into the food chain.
4. Cook food at home using as little plastic packaging as possible by focusing on raw ingredients (...and just think of the personal health benefits!)
5. Take your own resuable mug to the coffee shop. Forgot it this time? Then skip the lid or the stir straw! Be conscious of only using disposable plastics when absolutely unavoidable.
6. Recycle! Recycle! Recycle!
7. Shop at farmer's markets or waste conscious stores that intentionally limit packaging.
8. Participate in an underwater reef clean-up. Its both super fun and removes fishing line and netting that can damage coral reefs and strangle, choke, and kill marine life.
9. Switch from disposable diapers to cloth.
10. Skip plastic bottled cleaning agents and use natural alternatives instead such as baking soda and vinegar, which also cuts down on downstream chemical runoff.
Mahalo Nui Loa and Aloha!