What would we do without plastic? There wouldn’t be any water bottles, plastic wrap, plastic bags, soda can holders, etc. Plastic is convenient, but it’s what happens after we are done with it that’s the problem. These products are supposed to go to the local landfills. However, the Earth’s largest landfill isn’t actually on land; it’s out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean in an area called the Great Pacific garbage patch. There are several of these garbage patches located around the world, but the biggest one is closest to the U.S. Although plastic and Styrofoam products have made life easier in the world, they are contaminating the oceans because litter is finding it’s way out into the ocean, the materials are then breaking down and allowing toxic chemicals to leech into the water and plastic pieces are making their way into the bellies of birds and other animals.
Large amounts of plastic and Styrofoam are finding their way to the ocean. The largest amounts of ocean trash come from cruise and cargo ships. In 1975, the National Academy of Sciences estimated that ocean-based sources, such as cargo ships and cruise liners, dumped 14 billion pounds of garbage into the ocean (California Coastal Commission, 2011). The Mediterranean’s surrounding countries have adopted bans on dumping in the ocean. They have noticed that when something is dumped in the ocean, it ends up on shore and it soils the beaches. The cruise ships are now only allowed to dump food overboard. The remaining garbage is taken off the ship when it’s in port and sent to a local landfill. The Caribbean, however, has not adhered to these same standards. The surrounding islands do not have the capacity to take the garbage from the cruise ships. When Grenada tried to tax $1.50 per head to Carnival Cruise Line so they could pay for a new landfill, Carnival withdrew and will not go back there (Melia, 2009). Under the Caribbean guidelines as of 2009, “ships can begin dumping garbage, including metal, glass and paper, three miles from shore as long as it is ground to less than an inch. Almost anything but plastic can be dumped beyond 25 miles” (Melia, 2009). An inch is small enough that a fish or turtle will think it’s food, but large enough to choke on.
Another way that trash is finding its way to the Great Garbage Patch is by rain and wind carrying litter to local rivers that eventually dump into the ocean. Trash on the street will accumulate in gutters and will likely get washed into a nearby storm drain. Most storm drain systems empty directly into local rivers, which flow into the ocean (California Coastal Commission, 2011). Once the trash makes its way to the ocean, it gets caught up in the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre. A gyre is a huge area where water of different temperatures mixes together causing a spiral effect in the current. This is a slow process and can take as long as seven to eight years for a piece of trash to make it from the beaches of California to the Eastern Pacific garbage patch. This current changes during different times of the year due to El Nino. During the summer, it is located more north, and in the winter it is located just above Hawaii. It has also been shown that marine animals tend to congregate in these areas as well (Pichel, et al., 2007).
The problems with plastics and Styrofoam in the water are many. The first problem is that plastic and Styrofoam break down and release toxins into the water. There is some debate as the where the plastic is breaking down. In the right conditions the plastic could break down in the water due to the sun and rain. A recent study showed that it would take as little as one year for the decomposing of Styrofoam to start. This would release bisphenol A and styrene trimer into the water (Saido, et al., 2009). Charles Moore doesn’t think that the breaking down of hard plastic is as likely due to the plastic being heavier than water, so it would sink. There is less sun at the bottom of the ocean, so no photosynthesis would occur. Also, the temperature at the bottom of the ocean is colder than the water in the test. Moore does point out though, that if the marine animals eat the plastic, it would digest inside of them and these chemicals would be released into their bodies (Leggett, 2009).
It is no secret though that BPA, styrene and PS oligomer are now found in small quantities in the ocean, which has been shown to cause hormonal imbalances in animals and humans. The immediate affects of low doses of these chemicals are largely unknown at this time, but these chemicals and other, man-made chemicals, have been found in the blubber of whales and bottlenose dolphins. A study of 300 blubber samples, from 14 geographic locations, from the years 2000-2007, was completed with surprising results. The closer the dolphins lived to large cities, the higher the contaminant in their blubber. The dolphins that lived in rural areas still had some pollutants, but not nearly as high as the dolphins closer to the cities (Sohn, 2011).
We also have the problem of the plastic and Styrofoam debris washing up on shore. While it seems like this would be easier to clean up than out in the middle of the ocean, the huge quantities are not easy to deal with. “Each year as much as 150,000 tons of plastic debris, most notably Styrofoam, wash up on the shores of Japan alone” (American Chemical Society, 2009). Plastic is not easy to recycle. Once you finish with a water bottle, you must remove the cap and the circle of plastic that was attached to the cap. These are a different plastic than the bottle, so even if you place your bottle in the recycle can, if this cap is still on, the bottle will be sent to the landfill. Another hard to recycle plastic product is plastic grocery bags. If these are placed in a recycle can, they will be taken to a local landfill. Only certain places will recycle them. In order to get them where they need to be, you must take them back to your grocery store and place them in a container there. Plastic grocery bags are found all over the oceans. Whales and other animals eat them thinking they are jellyfish. Scientists have noted 170 different kinds of land animals, birds, and marine animals, from calves and albatross to sea turtles to dolphins that have been injured by plastic bags on British beaches alone (Advocacy For Animals, 2008).
A major problem with shoreline plastic debris is that every year thousands of albatross chicks are dying from starvation and choking because their parents are feeding them plastic that looks like food. On the shores of Kure Atoll, northwest of Hawaii, the Albatross forage for food in the Western Pacific garbage patch. They are looking for flying fish eggs that are attached to floating object. New studies have shown that “plastics can comprise up to 50% of the indigestible material in an albatross’ intestinal tract” (Mayer, 2003). The plastic causes the chicks to die from starvation, even though they are full of plastic, they can die from blockages from the plastic, and they can become poisoned from all the harmful chemicals in the plastic. Some of the most obvious plastic on the beaches are cigarette lighters. “In a two-and-a-half month period, volunteers collected well over 1000 lighters while working on the atoll” (Mayer, 2003). These lighters were found inland, away from the water, closer to the nesting areas.
The best way to clean up this problem is to stop using plastic. Plastic bags are an immediate concern due to their inability to be recycled easily. Several countries have banned the use of plastic bags or made them less desirable by placing taxes on them. While the United States has made no attempt to stop the use of plastic bags, environmentally conscious stores, such as Trader Joe’s and Albertson’s, as well as the cities New York and San Francisco, have taken steps to help the reduction of plastic bag use. “The city of San Francisco banned plastic bags altogether, at least the flimsy ones of yore. National Public Radio reported a few months later that the ban had been a boon for local plastics manufacturers, who have been introducing heavy-duty, recyclable, and even compostable bags into the marketplace” (Advocacy For Animals, 2008). Several European countries, as well as Ireland and Taiwan have imposed a tax on plastic bags. While Bangladesh, Australia, France, Italy and China have gone so far as to ban them altogether.
We are a very lazy society. There used to be a time when we had to get up from the couch to change the channel on the TV, we had to cook dinner from scratch in a cast iron pan, and we had to walk or ride a bicycle to work. This was a much cleaner time. Now we need 10 plastic bags to take our groceries home, we have to drink water from a new bottle every time, and we drive everywhere, even if it’s a block down the street. We are lazy and we are destroying our planet. The Great Pacific garbage patch is just one of the many examples of what we have done and we have to fix it.
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American Chemical Society. (2009, 08 19). Plastics in the Oceans Decompose, Release Hazardous Chemicals, Surprising New Study Says. Retrieved 03 25, 2012, from ScienceDaily: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/08/090819234651.htm
California Coastal Commission. (2011). The Problem With Marine Debris. Retrieved 2012 йил 23-02 from Public Education Program: http://www.coastal.ca.gov/publiced/marinedebris.html
Leggett, H. (2009 йил 19-08). Toxic Soup: Plastics Could Be Leaching Chemicals Into Ocean. Retrieved 2012 йил 23-02 from Wired Science: http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2009/08/plasticoceans/
Mayer, B. (2003). Marine Debris: Cigarette Lighters and the Plastic Problem on Misway Atoll. Retrieved 03 24, 2012, from http://www.fws.gov/midway/Midway_Atoll_NWR_Cigarette_Lighters.pdf
Melia, M. (2009 йил 01-03). Caribbean A Dumping Ground For Garbage From Cruise Ships. Retrieved 2012 йил 23-02 from LA Times: http://articles.latimes.com/2009/mar/01/news/adfg-cruise-dumping1
Pichel, W. G., Churnside, J. H., Veenstra, T. S., Foley, D. G., Friedman, K. S., Brainard, R. E., et al. (2007). Marine debris collects within the North Pacific Subtropical Convergence Zone. Marine Pollution Bulletin , 54, pp. 1207–1211.
Saido, K., Itagaki, T., Sato, H., Kodera, Y., Abe, O., Ogawa, N., et al. (2009, 08 26). New contamination derived from marine debris plastics. Washington DC.
Sohn, E. (2011, 05 20). DOLPHIN, WHALE BLUBBER HARBORS CHEMICALS Since we tend to eat the same fish as these marine predators, this is bad news for humans, too. Retrieved from Discovery News: http://news.discovery.com/animals/dolphins-whales-chemicals-blubber-110520.html