Two hundred years after his birth, Darwin’s Pacific has become a vortex of trash in the northern ocean where plastic refuse outweighs even the plankton.
Text by Marie Freebody
Party Guest: “I just want to say one word to you.
Just one word. Are you listening?”
Benjamin Braddock: “Yes sir.”
Party Guest: “Plastics.”
When Charles Darwin sailed across the Pacific Ocean in the 1830s, the observations he made there would later inspire his theory of evolution. But even Darwin’s considerable talents couldn’t have imagined that within150 years, man would transform the pristine oceans into a sea of floating plastic that kills animals on, under and over these vast reaches of life-sustaining water.
And the question today isn’t whether man’s reliance on plastic is creating a marine evolutionary crisis, but to what degree, and can we use the same ingenuity that created plastic to resolve the devastation it has wrought on the world ocean?
For a decade, researchers have studied what they call the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a five million square miles (over 13 million square kilometres) area of the Pacific Ocean that stretches from Hawaii to Japan, estimated to hold 100,000 plastic particles per kilometre. On Darwin’s historic voyage almost 175 years ago, he would have seen no debris of human origin. Today, researchers have determined that the plastic-plankton ratio is 46 to one, weighted in favour of our junk.
One man who has dedicated the last 10 years of his life to the research and restoration of the area is Captain Charles Moore, founder of the Algalita Research Foundation based in Long Beach, California. Moore first discovered the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in 1997 after competing in a yacht race from Los Angeles to Hawaii. He took a short cut home and was astonished to find himself surrounded by a sea of trash. For days on end, his yacht navigated through shampoo caps, foam packaging and plastic containers of every description.
Moore had taken a detour straight through the North Pacific gyre – a vortex of air and water in which ocean currents meet and rotate, drawing material from the Pacific Rim and concentrating it towards a vast central area.
Algalita researchers regularly undertake voyages to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and what they have learned so far, makes for grim reading.
Marine Life Suffers
Plastic damage to wildlife is twofold:
- Entanglement in the debris can lead to suffocation and drowning
- Ingestion of smaller pieces of debris by birds and fish that mistake floating bits of plastic for food, causes choking or intestinal blockage. In some cases, starvation occurs because the plastic makes the animal feel full without offering any nourishment.
“Some analysts estimate that 50 per cent of all species are affected by plastic debris from the very smallest to the very largest,” Moore said. “Broken, degraded plastic pieces outweigh surface zooplankton in the central North Pacific by a factor of 46-1. This means 46 pounds of plastic for every single pound of zooplankton.”
Ingestion may be the most destructive for its long-term effects. Chemicals absorbed by the plastics are transmitted into the fish and birds through digestion and continue up the food chain, affecting other animals including humans. In fact, one of the objectives of a voyage Moore and his team made last summer was to investigate the level of plastic toxicants in common table fare fish – the most commonly found fish in restaurants and that we buy for home consumption.
“Lanternfish, which are the most common fish in the ocean, surface feed at night causing them to eat large quantities of plastic,” Moore explained. “We actually found 84 pieces of plastic in one two and a half inch (6cm) long Lanternfish. This means that the entire marine food chain is affected because the feeding strategy of the most common fish in the ocean takes them to their food source – where this debris is abundant.”
Since the Pacific gyre is a continuous swirling vortex of water, different densities of plastic material sit at different levels in the water column. But in calmer waters near the southern Californian shore most of the trash sinks to the bottom. Here, reefs are smothered by plastic debris that denies light and good circulation of water to symbiotic algae that is integral to the health of reefs.
“In every single trawl that we’ve ever done in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, we have found some plastic whether it’s at a depth of 300 plus feet (100m), at the surface or anywhere in between,” Moore said. “When surface waters are calm, we actually find more debris covering the ocean floor or on coral reefs than we find floating on the surface.”
Source Of The Problem
Few human activities today do not generate plastic waste. The problem is so pervasive it’s seemingly invisible. Consider all the things that come wrapped in plastic that is then discarded.
This plastic waste enters the sea via streams, rivers and by air, with a little help from wind. Moore estimates that 80 per cent of this floating garbage comes from the land; the remainder from sources on or in the sea itself.
“Oil rigs and ships must be coated in order to keep the metal beneath from corroding,” explained Moore. “These coatings chip off and in some areas we’ve found paint chips to be the most common marine debris on the bottom of the ocean.”
Moore calculates about 100 million tons of marine debris circulates in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. And the rapidly increasing quantities of plastic finding their way to the ocean, sadly, parallel the rapid rise in global polymer production. Some analysts estimate that the volume of debris around the coastlines of the United Kingdom, for example, doubled between 1994 and 1998, and in parts of the Southern Ocean the volume increased a hundred fold.
“Our first investigation of plastic density in the North Pacific Gyre in 1999 found an average of 0.002g/m2 of plastic debris at the surface, with the dry weight of plankton outweighed by plastic six times,” Moore said. “In 2008, we replicated the same study and found this to have increased to 0.004g/m2, doubling in nine years with a ratio of plastic to plankton now at 46 to one.”
While these numbers reflect a shocking increase in plastic pollution, Moore expects the problem to become exponentially worse in the coming years.
“We have found plastic from the 1940s when plastic first started gaining widespread use after World War II,” he said. “It’s taken over half a century for this plastic pollution to reach the levels we see today, but at the current rate of plastic deposition, I think the amount could easily double in the next decade.”
Next Voyage Of Discovery
The next in Moore’s series of scientific voyages will see a return to the North Pacific gyre to better understand the extent to which plastic is finding its way into the food chain and to gauge the subsequent impact on human health. The crew will also be exploring another accumulation zone predicted by scientists at the U.S. National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to carry more plastic debris than researchers have ever encountered before.
“The problem may be far worse than we first thought,” Moore says. “We haven’t found any part of the ocean that is free from plastic debris, but there are areas where the plastic soup is more condensed and we think we may be about to find an even denser plastic soup than exists in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.”
It’s a six-week voyage covering a total of 6,000 miles (9,600km) – over 4,000 miles (6,400km) just to get out there and another 2,000 miles (3,200km) to get back to California – the longest the ship has sailed without seeing land.
Solution In Prevention
The outlook is bleak. Moore does not believe that it’s possible to return the oceans to the pristine waters that Darwin once explored. Cleaning up plastic fragments from the sea is not feasible. It would certainly be too costly for any one nation to undertake. And any attempt to ‘filter’ the sea would cause untold damage to marine life.
Moore believes the solution comes down to prevention – the problem must be ‘capped’ at the source, which means keeping plastic on land. One conservation initiative currently being considered in the state of California is a ‘leash’ law requiring plastic caps remain attached to their bottles.
So far Moore has been pleased by the response, at least in California, to his calls for conservation. He’s optimistic that the rest of the country will follow and so will the world. But, he emphasizes, the world is playing catch-up at present, a game in which we are well behind.
“I’m optimistic that we’re raising awareness and making progress, it’s just that the awareness and the progress fall far behind the production of plastic waste,” he said. “I’m certainly not optimistic that we’ll be able to go in the other direction and clear the problem up completely.”
The only way Moore believes that we can truly fight the onslaught of plastic pollution in our seas is to separate our false needs from our true needs.
“The economy has to be directed towards satisfaction of human needs,” he said. “The economy thrives on the production of false goods to satisfy false needs evident in over consumption. It’s not based on what the human animal truly needs for its own freedom and liberation and we’ve got to focus on providing the basic necessities of life for the entire world population so that we don’t have to over exploit our resources.”
For more information on Algalita go to: www.algalita.org
Diving In A Plastic Sea
Moore requires that all members of his crew onboard the Alguita – the foundation’s 50-foot (15m) research vessel – must be able to dive in order to carry out numerous tasks that include sample collecting and analysis of the water column.
“One early method we used was to create a marked grid by using four weighted buoys to delineate a two cubic metre area and then count the number of fragments that pass through that area,” Moore said. “Beneath the surface a diver will watch little bits of plastic flow through the array to get a quantitative idea of how many fragments there are per cubic metre.”
Although the crew now uses nets to trawl the ocean, the crude technique is still valid. It’s not well understood how plastic is distributed through the water column so even a diver’s subjective assessment provides valuable information.
“Most divers know that you can jump into a rough ocean that’s much calmer below the surface,” Moore said. “This wave action has an effect on the dispersion of surface materials and that is what we are seeking to understand – how the dispersion of this plastic waste is accomplished by breaking waves and rougher surface conditions.”
Moore also employs a variety of other methods to collect samples. One example is the Manta Trawl, a device similar in design to a plankton net Darwin himself devised to occupy his time on the long ocean crossings. This fine mesh net is dragged behind the research vessel to capture surface debris.
To collect debris below the surface, the crew uses a Bongo Trawl – a device that can be lowered to depths as great as 330 feet (100m). Other important instruments that allow the Alguita crew to probe the depths include side scan sonar and tethered video cameras.
The Human Factor
While there is little marine life in the high-pressure systems of the Pacific Gyre there is still plenty to see, such as lost scuba gear. Moore has quite a collection of masks, snorkels and fins that he’s found floating in the ocean or on the sea floor.
But Moore warns of a serious consequence of other human activities, such as over fishing of large predators for food and sport in the Pacific. “What we are seeing is a return to more primitive life forms,” said Moore. “We are seeing a resurgence of jelly fish. And in the coastal waters of California, divers are more worried about being attacked by giant squid than sharks as the top predators that used to eat the squid are fast disappearing.”
Addicted to Plastic
Early on in his 82-minute plague of plastic expose, Canadian documentary filmmaker Ian Connacher elucidates the magnitude of the problem: no organism yet discovered can degrade plastic.
Chew on that for a moment.
But for a small amount that’s been incinerated, every piece of the synthetic stuff ever made still exists.
To tell his story Connacher embarks on a truly global journey – across North America to Europe, to Africa, to Asia, to Australia – but his first stop was downhill from all these places: on and under the deep sea.
It was there he met Dr. Charles Moore of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation (read The Great Pacific Garbage Patch on page ??).
“Our oceans have become a plastic soup,” Moore says. He’s been sampling the marine world for over a decade now only to find – even in the most remote oceanic regions – that the ratio of plastic to plankton, measured by weight, favours the manmade material over natural organisms by a wide margin that continues to spread.
Our problem with these little resin beads, which are the DNA of bottles, bags and bumpers, began over a hundred years ago when chemists cooked up the first plastics to replace dwindling natural resources such as ivory, rubber, silk, cork, etc. A spokesman for the American Chemistry Council calls plastic “the modern clay.” Indeed. Today, it’s used in everything from heart valves to stir sticks.
World War II accelerated demand and afterwards industry had to find applications for the stuff in order to keep the factories running. What followed is prophetically summed up in a 1955 Life Magazine story titled ‘Throw Away Living’. Plastic became so cheap and disposable that it also became invisible in everyday life.
In the sea, plastic is quite literally a “poison pill”. By its nature it accumulates oil pollutants such as pesticides and herbicides. Japanese scientist Dr. Hideshige Takada’s analyses reveal the concentration of PCBs in floating plastic is one million times greater than its diluted measure in the surrounding sea.
The long and short of it is that collectively world cities get a failing grade on recycling. In North America only number one and two plastics are recycled. Tons go to the landfill, the oilfields of tomorrow. Another problem for recycling enterprise is that plastic manufacturers aren’t all singing from the same song sheet. Merchandise is made using many different polymers and often other materials, like metals, in the finished product.
But there are a lot of cool things going on. Would you believe plastic railroad ties? Fifteen million are installed each year in North America alone. This is a one size fits all product wherever you go in the world. So, just one mold is needed. The outdoor clothing manufacturer, Patagonia, makes garments from recycled plastics and they’ll be pleased to recycle any old garments you have that carry their label.
In Kenya, where locals call plastic bags the ‘national flower’ some entrepreneurs are using waste plastic to fabricate products and to employ people. It’s good for the economy. Similar, truly uplifting initiatives are happening in places like India, where 60 per cent of plastic gets recycled. Much of the population is poor and consumption rates are a fraction of those in North America. E-waste is big business in India. Just about everything in an old computer gets re-used.
Connacher interviews a wide range of knowledgeable people for his documentary; some allude to an uncertain future. We’re told there are more things we don’t know than we do about the harmful effects of plastic. We’re reminded that industry does lie to the public to protect profits and one scientist says the plastic industry can expect to pay a price just as big tobacco has for its transgressions.
So, how realistic is a plastic free life style? What will it take to change consumer behaviour? What will it take to make industry value the material instead of making everything disposable? One solution is to harness the energy in waste plastic and some amazing work is well underway.
A German scientist has successfully developed a process to turn plastic back into the oil from which it came. An Irish bioengineer is breeding bacteria that love to eat this reconstituted oil. After the critters have all had a good feed he extracts material from their cells that is then used to make a non-toxic, one hundred percent biodegradable plastic. This is cutting edge science now economically feasible given today’s price of oil.
Petroleum is a finite resource and so big industry is exploring alternatives. Sony makes its Walkman from a vegetable-based, biodegradable plastic. NEC makes a biodegradable cell phone. And these giants are making money in the process. Experiments are underway to make plastics with everything from orange peels to maple syrup. Really. One outfit uses the protein in chicken feathers to make plastic.
Plantic Technologies in Australia makes product that looks and behaves like plastic but it rapidly dissolves in water, rather like the wicked witch of the west who, come to think of it, lived in OZ. This plastic is non-toxic and is biodegradable. Chuck it away and it’s back into the biomass as carbon dioxide and water inside of eight weeks.
For a hundred years we’ve all been caught up in the ‘plastic promise’. It’s time to rethink our love affair with synthetics.
You can rent Addicted to Plastic at your local DVD store. Distributed in Canada by Mongrel Media, the documentary has won numerous film festival awards.
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