Cleaning Up The Oceans Essay

Tony Haymet, former director of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, has heard hundreds of ocean cleanup plans. Late at night, over many beers, he's come up with a few dozen of his own. None of them, he says, has seemed likely to work.

That includes this spring's offerings. A Dutch engineering student, Boyan Slat, envisions a contraption with massive booms that would sweep debris into a huge funnel. Songwriter and music producer Pharrell Williams wants to fund the monumental cost of any cleanup by turning recycled ocean plastic into yarn and then clothes.

The challenge is huge. For one thing, the garbage is spread over millions of square miles. For another, it's made up mostly of degraded plastic, broken down by sunlight and waves into tiny bits the size of grains of rice.

"That's what makes it so horrifying," Haymet says. "The micro-plastic is the same size as the stuff living in the water column. How would we ever go out and collect it? So far no one's come up with a plan to separate all the micro-plastic from the living life that's the same size."

In the face of growing criticism, Slat had to back off his optimistic boast that he could clean up the oceans in five years. He posted a notice on his website asking the media and the critics to wait until he finishes his research.

Meanwhile, the garbage keeps growing.

Consider this alarming statistic from CSIRO, Australia's national science agency, which is wrapping up a three-year study of marine debris: Every decade global production of plastics doubles. Even if someone came up with a workable collecting mechanism, how much impact could it have?

"If we are doubling what we are putting into the ocean on a ten-year basis, there's no way to keep up," says Chris Wilcox, an ecologist at CSIRO. "It would be as if you were vacuuming your living room, and I'm standing at the doorway with a bag of dust and a fan. You can constantly keep vacuuming, but you could never catch up."

Most of the garbage accumulates in five little-explored "patches" found in the doldrums of the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans.

The largest is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which starts a few hundred miles off the coast of North America and stretches to a few hundred miles off the coast of Japan; a more concentrated area lies between California and Hawaii.

One commonly accepted estimate is that the high-density area inside the Great Pacific Garbage Patch contains 480,000 pieces of plastic per square kilometer (nearly four-tenths of a square mile). But scientists say that's only a guess.

Charles Moore, who "discovered" the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in the late 1990s and plans a research trip there in July, estimates that altogether the globe's garbage patches contain 200 million tons of floating debris. He came up with the figure based on calculations that 2.5 percent of the world's plastic ends up in the sea.

Marcus Eriksen, a marine scientist and co-founder of the California-based 5 Gyres, which studies the five main garbage patches, estimates the total floating debris is just 500,000 tons.

In either case, the harm to fish and other sea creatures is increasing. A 2009 research trip to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch by Scripps found 9 percent of the fish had ingested plastic. Eriksen, with help from seven other scientists, recently analysed material in all of the garbage patches. Of 671 fish collected, 35 percent had ingested plastic particles.

"Either number scares me," Haymet says. "Those are only the sick fish—not the ones who died because they ate plastic that was too big. And they are the only two studies. There should be hundreds of studies of this stuff. Our life, our economies are totally dependent on the oceans. Fifty percent of the oxygen we breathe is made in the ocean every night."

Haymet and like-minded ocean scientists haven't given up. They favor a low-tech, more practical approach to protecting the oceans from trash: Persuade the world's people to stop littering.

Only about 20 percent of ocean plastic comes from marine sources, such as discarded fishing equipment or cargo ship mishaps. About 80 percent of it washes out to sea from beach litter or was carried downstream in rivers, according to the CSIRO study, which is considered the most comprehensive.

About half of that litter is plastic bottles. Most of the rest is packaging.

"All of that stuff was in a human's hand at one point or another," Wilcox says. "The essence of the solution is to provide incentives for people not to throw this stuff away. It is the cheapest, simplest, and far most efficient solution to the problem."

Creating incentives to help reduce littering can be a political challenge. Only one of Australia's eight main states and territories has a beverage-container deposit law, says Britta Denise Hardesty, who conducted the CSIRO study.

In the U.S. only ten states—including California, Maine, Massachusetts, and Connecticut-have enacted container deposit laws. Opinion polls show support for such laws, but beverage manufacturers have opposed legislation. They argue that bottle deposits are more expensive than other forms of recycling and that requiring deposits constitutes a tax, which increases the cost of beverages.

"When you think about climate change, it's hard to reduce our carbon footprint, because we have to go through a fundamental shift in our economies," Wilcox says. "With plastic, when you're throwing a bottle cap on the ground, that should be an easy impact to get rid of."

OCEAN PLASTICS POLLUTION

A Global Tragedy for Our Oceans and Sea Life

Plastic never goes away. And it's increasingly finding its way into our oceans and onto our beaches. In the Los Angeles area alone, 10 metric tons of plastic fragments — like grocery bags, straws and soda bottles — are carried into the Pacific Ocean every day. Today billions of pounds of plastic can be found in swirling convergences making up about 40 percent of the world's ocean surfaces.

 

Plastics pollution has a direct and deadly effect on wildlife. Thousands of seabirds and sea turtles, seals and other marine mammals are killed each year after ingesting plastic or getting entangled in it. Endangered wildlife like Hawaiian monk seals and Pacific loggerhead sea turtles are among nearly 300 species that eat and get caught in plastic litter.

It's time to get at the root of this ocean crisis. The Center has petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency to begin regulating plastics as a pollutant under the Clean Water Act — a crucial first step in reducing the amount of plastic littering the oceans. We've also petitioned to designate the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands as a Superfund site.Read more about our campaign.

THE PLASTIC PROBLEM

We're surrounded by plastic. Think about every piece you touch in a single day: grocery bags, food containers, coffee cup lids, drink bottles, straws for juice boxes — the list goes on and on. Plastic may be convenient, but its success carries a steep price.

In the first decade of this century, we made more plastic than all the plastic in history up to the year 2000. And every year, billions of pounds of plastic end up in the world's oceans. 

Most ocean pollution starts out on land and is carried by wind and rain to the sea. Once in the water, there is a near-continuous accumulation of waste. Plastic is so durable that the EPA reports “every bit of plastic ever made still exists.”  

Most ocean pollution starts out on land and is carried by wind and rain to the sea. Once in the water, there is a near-continuous accumulation of waste. Plastic is so durable that the EPA reports “every bit of plastic ever made still exists.”  

Due to its low density, plastic waste is readily transported long distances from source areas and concentrates in gyres, systems of rotating ocean currents. All five of the Earth's major ocean gyres are inundated with plastic pollution. But it's not limited to the gyres; studies estimate there are 15–51 trillion pieces of plastic in the world's oceans — from the equator to the poles, from Arctic ice sheets to the sea floor. Emerging research suggests that not one square mile of surface ocean anywhere on earth is free of plastic pollution.

A HEAVY TOLL ON WILDLIFE

Thousands of animals, from small finches to great white sharks, die grisly deaths from eating and getting caught in plastic: 

    • Fish in the North Pacific ingest 12,000 to 24,000 tons of plastic each year, which can cause intestinal injury and death and transfers plastic up the food chain to bigger fish and marine mammals. A recent study found that a quarter of fish at markets in California contained plastic in their guts, mostly in the form of plastic microfibers.
    • Sea turtles also mistake floating plastic garbage for food. While plastic bags are the most commonly ingested item, loggerhead sea turtles have been found with soft plastic, ropes, Styrofoam, and monofilament lines in their stomachs. Ingestion of plastic can lead to blockage in the gut, ulceration, internal perforation and death; even if their organs remain intact, turtles may suffer from false sensations of satiation and slow or halt reproduction. Tragically, the most current research indicates that half of sea turtles worldwide have ingested plastic.
    • Hundreds of thousands of seabirds ingest plastic every year. Plastic ingestion reduces the storage volume of the stomach, causing birds to consume less food and ultimately starve. Nearly all Laysan albatross chicks — 97.5 percent — have plastic pieces in their stomachs; their parents feed them plastic particles mistaken for food. It's estimated that 60 percent of all seabird species have eaten pieces of plastic, with that number predicted to increase to 99 percent by 2050. Based on the amount of plastic found in seabird stomachs, the amount of garbage in our oceans has rapidly increased in the past 40 years.
    • Marine mammals ingest and get tangled in plastic. Large amounts of plastic debris have been found in the habitat of endangered Hawaiian monk seals, including in areas that serve as pup nurseries. Entanglement deaths are severely undermining recovery efforts of this seal, which is already on the brink of extinction. Entanglement in plastic debris has also led to injury and mortality in the endangered Steller sea lion, with packing bands the most common entangling material. In 2008 two sperm whales were found stranded along the California coast with large amounts of fishing net scraps, rope and other plastic debris in their stomachs.

THE EPA MUST ACT NOW

Plastic pollution doesn't just hurt marine species. It's also harmful to people.

As plastic debris floats in the seawater, it absorbs dangerous pollutants like PCBs, DDT and PAH. These chemicals are highly toxic and have a wide range of chronic effects, including endocrine disruption and cancer-causing mutations. The concentration of PCBs in plastics floating in the ocean has been documented as 100,000 to 1 million times that of surrounding waters. When animals eat these plastic pieces, the toxins are absorbed into their body and passed up the food chain.

As plastics break apart in the ocean, they also release potentially toxic chemicals such as bisphenol A (BPA), which can then enter the food web. When fish and other marine species mistake the plastic items for food, they ingest the particles and pass toxic chemicals through the food chain and ultimately to our dinner plates.

Plastic pollution affects our economy, costing us untold dollars spent in beach cleanups, tourism losses and damages to fishing and aquaculture industries. Beaches and oceans have turned into landfills. Prime tourist destinations are now littered with garbage. Kamilo Beach, in a remote corner of Hawaii, is now known as “Plastic Beach” for the tons of plastic debris that accumulates on its shores. 

OUR CAMPAIGN AGAINST OCEAN PLASTIC POLLUTION

Plastic pollution in our oceans is endangering marine life and ecosystems, so the Center for Biological Diversity is tackling the problem.

In August 2012, the Center petitioned the EPA asking the government to regulate plastics as a pollutant under the Clean Water Act. The Clean Water Act is the nation's strongest law protecting water quality, and we're using the tools provided by this law to stop plastic pollution.  Recognition of plastic pollution under the Clean Water Act will enable states to develop water-quality standards to finally begin curbing the amount of plastic trash dumped on our beaches and in our oceans.

Four months later, we petitioned the EPA again — this time requesting that the agency designate the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands as a Superfund site. This area includes the U.S. portion of the enormous Pacific Garbage Patch, a swirling mass of litter in the Pacific Ocean larger than the state of Texas. To address this plastic pollution disaster, our petition calls on the federal government to gather data and assess the nature and extent of the plastic pollution in one of the areas most afflicted by it.

The next year, the EPA responded to both our petitions in the same month: On November 6, 2013, it pledged to take steps to cut plastic pollution in oceans, improve monitoring and conduct a scientific review of the human-health effects of eating fish that have ingested plastics and other pollution. And on November 18 the agency agreed to take a historic first step toward classifying a tiny Hawaiian coral island, Tern Island, as a Superfund site because of hazards posed by plastic pollution. 

Banner photo by Wouter de Bruijn/Flickr; gray whale photo by Chris Johnson, NOAA.

Categories: 1

0 Replies to “Cleaning Up The Oceans Essay”

Leave a comment

L'indirizzo email non verrà pubblicato. I campi obbligatori sono contrassegnati *