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The Largest Garbage Dump on Earth
by Julian X  /  non-fiction  /  8 Jun 2008

The largest garbage dump on Earth is not on earth.  It is, of course, the ocean.

In the map of ocean currents, there is something called the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, a large oval stretching east-west from Japan to California.

The slowly clockwise spinning area now includes something known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, sometimes divided into the Western Pacific Garbage Patch and the Eastern Pacific Garbage Patch.  The western one floats between Japan and Hawaii; the eastern one floats between Hawaii and California.  Both move around, changing locations with the currents.  The two patches are connected by a thin current stretching 6,000 miles and called the Subtropical Conergence Zone.  The patches' sizes vary on how thick you think the garbage has to be to qualify as the patches' border, but each are conservatively the size of Texas.

If you poke around online, you can find shots of dirty, spinning water seen from outer space -- which look like nasty storms until you realize that they're giant pools of garbage.

Cool, huh?  Disgusting, isn't it?  Nice trivia fact.

These are naturally-occurring points of accumulation.  Flotsam used to accumulate in these spots.  It would biodegrade, providing nutrients for little fish.

That was before we started mass-producing trash.  Today, that flotsam is made of plastic.  Which, in the ocean, is a disaster.

The world produces over 200 million pounds of plastic per year.  Naturally, some of it ends up in the ocean.  Something like 90% all trash in the world's oceans is made of plastic.

The U.N. estimated in 2006 that each square mile of ocean contains about 46,000 pieces of floating plastic.  Yeah, those pieces can be small.  But, in some places, the volume of plastic can outweigh the volume of plankton by six to one.  Yes, most of the plastic eventually sinks, damaging the environment on the ocean floor.  But a lot of it doesn't:  it just floats around.

Most of it -- about 80% -- comes from sources on land.  Only about 20% come from ships and oil platforms and the like.  Container ships spill crates occasionally, and you can find boxes of Nike sneakers and the like just floating around the garbage patches.  But most of the junk comes from land:  Coke bottles, plastic bags, and all the plastic detritus that somehow got blown or swept into the ocean.  In the garbage patches, you can easily find stuff that's floated 5,000 miles or more to join the floating stew.

So what?  Plastic's cheap and ubiquitous -- at least for now, while the petroleum biproducts that go into it are still widely available.  You can even see commercials on TV for plastic, and it's certainly convenient.  It's cheap and durable.

But it's also durable once you discard it.  It takes hundreds of years for those little artificial plastic molecules to turn into something simpler.  In other words, it doesn't biodegrade (with any significant speed).

In the meantime, plastic photodegrades, meaning that light breaks it down.  If you leave a plastic bottle in the light, it'll slowly start to melt.  A few holes will appear.  Eventually, the whole thing will be gone.  But you'll still have a syrupy plastic soup lying around where the plastic bottle was.  And those are still plastic molecules.

Now imagine this taking place in the ocean.  As the plastic photodegrates, it creates these little slivers of plastic called "mermaid tears" or "nurdles."  Some people describe it as looking like plastic confetti -- little pieces of various colors, all strewn together.

Now imagine the garbage patches, those spots where stuff naturally accumulates in the ocean, filled with them.  It looks like that old parody advertisement on Saturday Night Live for American bottled water.  It's disgusting.  It's a shimmering mess of liquid plastic with chunky bits, not at all resembling water.

That's what we've turned some of the most distant areas of the ocean into -- areas about as far from mankind as you can get.

There's a movie you should see about a trip to the garbage patch and a nice article about going out there here.

Plastic also has another nice property:  it tends to soak up other chemicals, particularly nasty, toxic ones.  These mermaid tears, drifting in the ocean, just soak the stuff up, concentrating these toxins in these floating drops of plastic.  Studies have shown that these toxins include the infamously awful DDT.

Sounds good, huh?  The plastic soaks up this awful stuff, basically cleaning the ocean.  All we have to do is travel the oceans, picking up all the plastic.

Except that we're not doing that.  And there's no way to do that.  The plastic junk is all floating around, moving this way and that, running hundred of feet below the surface.

Instead, animals are eating them.  So now they've got plastic and toxins like DDT in them.

It starts with the jellyfish and other marine animals that just eat by filtering the water around them.  Then there's the smaller fish.  Then the bigger fish.  Birds are being found dead in high-plastic areas, their guts choked with plastic they can't digest -- so much so that they sometimes die of starvation.

Even without those absorbed toxins, plastic is pretty deadly to ingest.  It's pretty well established that it's carcinogenic to eat plastic.  But plastics often contain Bisphenol A, a compound that the body confuses for estrogen -- which can cause the reproductive system to shut down, from low sperm count to repeated miscarriages.

Let's get back to those two garbage patches.  They sometimes spin their way past islands.  The eastern of the two patches often spins through the outer Hawaiian archipelago, the string of islands of various sizes, including Midway, that stretches to the northwest from Hawaii.  Massive amounts of trash wind up on the shore, in some places burying beaches in foot after foot of trash.  Some is decades old and from far-away places.  Some beaches are covered with what's known as "plastic sand," countless particles of plastic, smaller than mermaid tears.  There's no cleaning this stuff up.  Birds like the albatross make their nests in these islands, unknowingly feeding their chicks little pieces of plastic, thinking that they're food -- and killing the chicks, to the tune of hundreds of thousands per year.

Now, you say, this sounds awful enough.  Polluted birds and fish, with no hope of being cleaned up?  Dead baby chicks?  Sad.  But you've got taxes and children to worry about.

Except that simple fact should be occurring to you:  humans eat fish.  That's right:  we're eating fish that has eaten fish that has eaten plastic.  Plastic that's soaked up DDT and toxins like that.

All the awful shit we spew into landfills and spray on crops, that runs down into the stream and the sea and eventually the ocean... first, it causes ecological catastrophes.  But, eventually, it trickles back up.

That's right:  we're eating our own shit.

And there's no way to fix it.

I'm not going to tell you to stop using plastic.  Or to use plastic that's been designed to biodegrade, which does exist.  We don't have the personal or political courage to stop using plastic in massive amounts -- let alone getting China to do likewise.  In a century, when the petroleum runs out, we'll probably look back on all those cheap plastic toys and bottles as just so typical of the late 1900s and early 2000s.  If we're around, we probably won't be using plastic any more than we'll be using fossil fuels.

Even if all the governments of the world stopped using plastic today, it wouldn't do anything about all the trash already in the oceans.  Which, again, we have no way of cleaning.

Then again, shifting ocean temperatures could cause the currents to shut off, which would fix that foating garbage dump problem.  The only side effect would be, basically, freezing the planet.

I'm feeling optimistic.

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Politics by Julian Darius:
Bush / Clinton
Unelectable Hillary
Hillary:  Obama May be Muslim
Obama Just the Beginning
The Largest Garbage Dump on Earth
Tiananmen Square 19 Years Later
Biden is Obama's V.P. Choice
Speeches that Could Have Been:  Hillary at the Convention
Hillary's Speech Good but Superficial
Hillary's Convention Speech and Revisionist History
Palin Gaffs
Palin on the Supreme Court
Dick Chaney Endorses Torture, Killing Americans