Our Eighth Continent: The Great Pacific Garbage Patch
A combined effort by the people of the world has finally created an eighth continent! This continent would not be a pleasant place to live, as it is made up of all of our unwanted filth, also known as marine litter. Marine litter has been defined as solid materials of human origin discarded at sea, or reaching the sea through waterways (Aliani & Molcard, 2003). This litter gets stuck in a swirling vortex called the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre. The Gyre is located in the central North Pacific Ocean located roughly between 135 ° to 155° W and 35° to 42°N (between the California coast line and Hawaii). Discoverer Charles J. Moore , noticed the patch when he was returning home through the North Pacific Gyre after competing in theTranspac sailing race in 1997. He came upon a wide stretch of floating debris, and dubbed the region the “Eastern Garbage Patch.” The Gyre is a combination of ocean currents and high air pressure that causes the water to swirl in a clockwise pattern and suck anything in its radius into its trap. We manufacture about 60 billion new tons of plastic each year (McLaughlin, 2008), and every day, with each piece of trash, this patch gets bigger and more and more sea life is harmed. 2.5–3.5 kg of rubbish per person per day was estimated to be entering the sea from ships alone. This approximates to 0.6 million tons of litter annually (Barnes & Milner, 2005). And the scary thing is, is that most of the trash is not coming from ships. It comes from beach goers and carless human beings. Given the rapid increase in plastic production, the longevity of plastic, and the disposable nature of plastic items, this contamination is likely to increase (Davis & Thompson, 2004). It has been assumed that the collected trash would be impossible to clean up, and even if it was cleaned up, the garbage would not stop coming, and the ocean would continue to fill up with our waste. Although the issue of the floating island in the Pacific is not well known, the Pacific Garbage Patch poses a serious threat to seabirds and marine life because of photodegradation, animal entanglement, and the small surface debris it creates.
When large objects float out to sea they are broken down into small confetti-sized particles by a process called photodegradation. Photodegradation occurs when an object has prolonged exposure to sunlight. The sun’s ultraviolet rays make plastic brittle, and the grinding action of waves breaks it to pieces, but polymers don’t vanish. They just get smaller and smaller (Ferris, 2009). These particles become so small that they actually go unseen by satellites and boats. The major sources of this debris include storm water discharges, sewer overflows, litter, solid waste disposals and landfills, offshore mineral and oil exploration, industrial activities and illegal dumping. The sheer volume and geographic range of marine debris is daunting: 14 billion pounds of garbage accumulates annually in the oceans and travels across the globe (Leous & Parry, 2005). Once these objects are broken into small molecular pieces, it makes the mess even more impossible to clean up. In addition, the Garbage Patch would not pose such a big risk to seabirds and marine life if the objects were too large to digest. Charles Moore, the oceanographer that first discovered the garbage patch, believes it would be impossible to clean these particles at sea. He has said that “trying to clean up the Pacific gyre would bankrupt any country and kill wildlife in the nets as it went” (DeFranza, 2009). The simplest solution is to quit using so much plastic. Each of us tosses about 185 pounds of plastic per year (Casey, 2006). It would be simple to reduce the amount of plastic each of us uses, but first the public has to be made aware of how repulsive their actions have been the past couple centuries.
Sea life living near or passing through the North Pacific Gyre are at risk of losing their lives in the floating debris that stretches for miles through the Pacific Ocean. Marine debris is generally characterized as discarded anthropogenic solid waste present in marine waterways. Composed largely of plastics, marine debris can include cigarette filters, baby diapers, six-pack rings, beverage bottles and cans, disposable syringes, plastic bags, bottle caps, fishing line and gear, automobiles and numerous other objects. The major sources of this debris include storm water discharges, sewer overflows, litter, solid waste disposal and landfills, offshore mineral and oil exploration, industrial activities and illegal dumping (Leous & Parry, 2005). Even if plastic waste disposal into the ocean should stop tomorrow, its blight would persist far into the future because of the resistance of existing waste to degradation. Beverage six-pack holders, for example, an extremely common form of plastic waste, are reported to have a life expectancy of 450 years in sea water (Connor & O’Dell, 1988). So even before trash swept out to sea has the opportunity to photodegrade, it poses a serious risk to aquatic life as a whole. Sea life can easily get trapped in or tangled in various nets, plastic ring top pop can holders, plastic bags, fishing line, and other human-made contraptions. The sea creatures that get tangled in such things suffer from injuries that limit their mobility, making them more vulnerable to predators. In some cases, marine life is drowned by the debris in which they have become entangled. Although marine debris studies have shown that plastic is quickly and intensively colonized by a wide range of species (Barnes & Milner, 2005), this does not mean that plastic is a beneficial thing to sea life. It is however, very good that creatures have been able to adapt so well to their rapidly changing home makeover. With the patch growing so quickly, marine life is going to have to adapt and evolve to live in these trashy conditions or they will be wiped out. As described by Charles Moore (the discoverer of the Patch) the Garbage Patch is two to three times the size of Texas, but in fact it might be far larger- as much as 5 million square miles, or one and a half times the size of the United States. As a marine mammal it would be quite hard to evade this significant trash mass. It is estimated that entanglement claims the lives of hundreds of thousands of marine mammals and seabirds each year (Walsh, 2005).
Because plastic never fully biodegrades, it is broken up into small particles which then form a layer of debris, which resides just below the surface of the water. Marine life and seabirds mistake this trash for plankton and other edibles. In parts of the ocean, a fish is more likely to consume plastic than actual food (Ferris, 2009). When animals eat indigestible trash, it then sits in their systems and clogs it so that no other food can pass through. Eventually the animal will die of starvation or suffocation. More than a million seabirds, 100,000 marine mammals, and countless fish die in the North Pacific each year, either from mistakenly eating this junk or from being ensnared in it and drowning (Casey, 2006). On British coastlines in the North Sea, a study of fulmars found that 95 percent of the seabirds had plastic in their stomachs, with an average of 44 pieces per bird. A proportional amount in a human being would weigh nearly five pounds (Doucette, 2009). Not only does adult bird morbidity rise as a result of the ingestion of plastics, but their ingestion also devastates their offspring. In the natural course of providing their chicks with sustenance, the adult birds, in a healthy environment, regurgitate partially digested fish and other sea organisms directly into their babies’ mouths. In the North Pacific Sea Gyre this type of nurturing manifests in a death sentence for these babies. The product of the regurgitation is compiled with a great amount of plastics and other indigestible trash. The breaking down of debris also releases toxins like DDT and PBC from plastic, which are then absorbed through the skin of jellyfish and fish. When these bits are ingested by animals, they get a massive dose of these toxinsResearchers have found this can result in biological damage that affects reproduction and the health of offspring and may even cause mutations (Walsh, 2005). In marine environments, excess estrogen has led to Twilight Zone-esque discoveries of male fish and seagulls that have sprouted female sex organs (Casey, 2006). Eating fish with these toxins in them is unhealthy and can be fatal to humans. Frederick vom Saal, Ph.D., a professor at the University of Missouri at Columbia who specifically studies estrogenic chemicals in plastics, says declining fertility rates in humans could be linked to exposure to synthetic oestrogen in plastics (Woods, 2007). So not only are these particles affecting marine life, but they are affecting humans as well. On Kamilo Beach in Hawaii, there are now more plastic particles than sand particles until one digs a foot down. Pagan Island has what is called the “shopping beach.” If the islanders need a cigarette lighter, or some flip-flops or a toy, or a ball for their kids, they go down to the shopping beach and pick it out of all the plastic trash that has washed up there from thousands of miles away (Drowning, 2009). It is clear that the impact of human mismanagement and lack of management of its waste products is resulting in the sickness and death of sea life upon which humans ultimately rely.
To understand the extent of the problem, as well as to combat it and measure effectiveness at doing so, temporal patterns as well as education are crucial (Barnes & Milner, 2005). Over the past five or six decades, contamination and pollution of the world’s enclosed seas, coastal waters and the wider open oceans by plastics and other synthetic, non-biodegradable materials (generally known as “marine debris”) has been an ever-increasing phenomenon (Gregory, 2009). Humankind is known for its indomitable spirit, endless creativity, and highly evolved intelligence. One may ask why then we have a problem such as this. One of the first steps to fixing a problem is acknowledging that it is there in the first place. In the case of the Pacific Gyre, our planet needs to become more aware of how this occurred, the damage it is causing to life on our planet, as well as the environment, and how we can go about fixing the damage. New laws prohibiting dumping at sea and on land encouraging recycling may slow the increase of material entering the oceans but evaluating this may prove difficult, as the number of sites surveyed is so small and from such a restricted geographic area (Barnes & Milner, 2005). Several alternatives are mentioned to stop the problem like using biodegradable plastics, recycling, and consumer tax (Coulter, 2010). If there were the incentive to handle each item of garbage separately, to put it in its proper place on some shelf, as we handle the initial packages of goods (and other items that leave a residue) when we buy the goods, we might readily manage the flow of garbage in successful ways (Hardin, 1998). Marine debris does not fall out of the sky, it comes from someone’s hands; we are the main cause of the problem, but also the key to the solution (Bamford, 2009). Sea animals should not have to endure this type of abuse; suffocating on plastic and getting tangled in old fishing line is a cruel way to go. With the sun and waves continuously working together to break up the marine debris, it will not be long until the entire ocean is filled with microscopic filth. Now is a good time to take action.
GARBAGE PATCH References
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