What would we do without plastic? There wouldn’t be any single-use water bottles, plastic wrap, plastic grocery bags, 6-pack holders, lawn chairs, packing “peanut” material or sandwich bags. Just one generation ago, we used recyclable materials such as paper, glass and metal to store food. Now we use petroleum plastic. This is a convenient and useful product that is very popular with our “throw-away” society, but it’s what happens after we are done with it that’s the problem. These items are supposed to go to the local landfills where they breakdown and decompose. However, they are making their way to the Earth’s largest landfill, which isn’t actually on land; it’s out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean in an area called the Great Pacific garbage patch located between Japan and the United States. Although plastic products have made life easier in the world, they are contaminating the oceans because litter is finding its way out into the ocean, the materials are then breaking down and allowing toxic chemicals to leech into the water, and plastic pieces are being ingested by maritime birdlife.
There are several types of plastic that we use in our daily life. We use hard plastic, plastic bags and a product called Styrofoam. Polystyrene, also known as Styrofoam, is a petroleum-based plastic that has been combined with styrene monomer (Senegalese, 2012). Large amounts of these plastics are turning up in our oceans. The majority of ocean trash comes 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). This garbage gets caught in ocean currents called gyres and will circulate in the water until it either breaks down or is eaten.
A gyre is a huge area where water of different temperatures mixes together causing a spiral effect in the current. There are five major gyres in the world (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 2008). The North Atlantic, North Pacific, South Atlantic, South Pacific, and Indian Ocean gyres all have their own sources of pollution. The North Pacific Subtropical Gyre is the most researched, so we are more aware of the extent of the great Pacific garbage patch. This particular gyre is roughly double the size of the United States. The other gyres are just as polluted and, while not as big, they are equally as dangerous to the environment (5 Gyres Institute, 2012). The process of trash getting from one side of the gyre to the other is a slow process. It can take as long as five years for a piece of trash to make it from the beaches of California to the Eastern Pacific garbage patch (National Public Radio, 2008). This current changes during different times of the year due to El Nino. During the summer, the gyre is located more north, and in the winter it is located just above Hawaii. The Atoll islands, just Northwest of Hawaii is an area that is greatly affected by the great Pacific garbage patch. It has been shown that marine animals tend to congregate here (Pichel, et al., 2007). This are is where animals build their nests, lay their eggs and raise their babies.
Countries around the world have had to come up with ways to combat the pollution in the gyres closest to them. The Mediterranean’s surrounding countries have adopted bans on dumping in the ocean. They have realized that when something is dumped in the ocean, it winds up on shore and soils the beaches. The cruise ships are now only allowed to dump food overboard. The remaining garbage is taken off the ship when in port and sent to a local landfill. The Caribbean has not adhered to these same standards, mainly because 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 to the island (Melia, 2009). Under the Caribbean guidelines as of 2009, ships can dump metal, glass, paper, and other trash three miles from shore but only if it’s smaller than an inch. Beyond 25 miles they can dump anything (Melia, 2009).
The cruise lines and cargo vessels are the biggest contributor to the garbage patch, but they’re not the only one’s at fault for this mess. Another way that trash is getting to the great garbage patch is from rain and wind carrying litter to local rivers that eventually dump into the ocean. Trash on the street accumulates in gutters and washes into nearby storm drains. Most storm drain systems empty directly into local rivers, which flow into the ocean (California Coastal Commission, 2011). Once in the Pacific Ocean, it gets caught up in the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, also known as the great Pacific garbage patch.
One of the ways that plastic is harmful is that it breaks down and releases toxins into the water. There is some debate as to where the plastic is breaking down though. 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, the man responsible for discovering the great Pacific garbage patch, 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 however, 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). Charles Moore also stated that the plastic is found in every shape and size. Even the smallest zooplankton is feeding on microscopic pieces of plastic (Greenberg, 2009). This is dangerous for us because we are eating these animals that have consumed plastic and these chemicals in our bodies are having ill effects on our health.
Another reason plastic and Styrofoam is harmful to the environment is that BPA, styrene and PS oligomer have now been found in small quantities in the ocean, which has been shown to cause hormonal imbalances in animals and humans. The immediate effects 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). There is again, some debate as to where this is coming from. It could be because the food they are eating is contaminated, or they are eating the plastic thinking that it is food, or it could even be that the water they are living in is contaminated. No one has been able to conclusively determine what is the cause. The point is that there has been chemicals found in animals, no matter what is concentration it is not a good sign.
We also have the problem of the plastic 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. In one year, Japan has found as much as 150,000 tons of plastic and Styrofoam debris washed up on its shores (American Chemical Society, 2009). Plastic grocery bags are found all over the oceans. Whales and other animals eat them thinking they are jellyfish. Scientists have noted 177 different kinds of marine life that have been injured by plastic debris (Müller, C., Townsend, K., & Matschullat, J., 2012).
Some of these bags come from the dump. They blow around and get to the ocean. Recycling is a great alternative, but it requires work. When you recycle plastic, you must know that there are rules to follow or the plastic will be sent on to the dump. Once a water bottle is used, the cap must be removed along with the circle of plastic that was attached to the cap. These are a different plastic than the bottle, so even if the bottle is deposited in the recycle can, if this cap is still on, the bottle will be sent to the landfill. Also, like plastic grocery bags and polystyrene, not all plastics are recycled at the same plant. If these are placed in a recycle can, they will be taken to a local landfill. In order to get them where they need to go, they must be taken to a drop-off site. To find a local drop-off site, you can go to earth911.com.
When items do not make it to the proper facilities for disposal, they may end up on our beaches. 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 up to 50% of the undigested material in an albatross’ intestinal tract is plastic (Mayer, 2003). Even though the chicks are being fed, they are full of plastic, which can cause blockages and starvation. The plastic that does digest releases harmful toxins that can poison the albatross. Some of the most obvious plastic on beaches are cigarette lighters. In two-and-a-half months, volunteers collected 1000 lighters while they worked on the Atoll (Mayer, 2003). These lighters were found inland, away from the water, closer to the nesting areas. This means they are not only washing up on shore, but the Albatross are picking them up and bring them to their 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. San Francisco has completely banned the thin plastic bags (Carlson, Wendy, 2008). Bangladesh, Australia, France, Italy and China have also banned them. While several European countries, as well as Taiwan have imposed a tax on plastic bags.
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 ten 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 this mess we are creating. The use of post-consumer recycled paper, bamboo, and corn plastic is a great place to start. These are biodegradable and can be composted. We also need to be more conscious about what we are throwing into our landfills. There are many items that can be recycled that are not being properly disposed of. There’s no good way, as of yet to clean up the great Pacific garbage patch, but if we can start cleaning up our country and not contribute any more debris, we can prevent it from getting bigger. That’s a good place to start.
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