Plastic is Killing our ocean

Image: Chris Jordan (via U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters) / CC BY 2.0 [CC BY 2.0 or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Excerpt for the article by Wendy Lipscomb
You don’t have to live anywhere near water to know that plastic has a way of finding its way out of the confines of our garbage cans and recycling boxes. When was the last time any of you urban-dwellers went for a walk and didn’t see a plastic water bottle or grocery bag at the side of the road, or pressed up against a fence?
But, let’s skip over that issue for now and focus on the world’s oceans. To say there’s a lot of garbage in the oceans is an understatement!
Here are some fast facts to put it in perspective:
  • Every minute, an amount of plastic equal to a full garbage truckload is deposited in our oceans (Source: World economic forum.)
  • Of the plastic that ends up in the oceans each year, 236,000 tons are microplastics, minuscule particles of plastic smaller than the nail of your pinky finger
  • The amount of plastic in the ocean is set to increase tenfold by 2020
  • It is projected that by 2050 the weight of all the plastic in the oceans will exceed the weight of all the fish
  • This is not just a surface problem – plastic has been found 7miles (11km) deep, in some of the most remote and least understood ecosystems on Earth
Where Does All the Plastic In the Ocean Come From?
Scientists’ best estimates are that 80% of the debris in the ocean comes from land-based activities. The remainder comes from oilrigs, private boats, commercial ships losing cargo, and fishing vessels dropping nets and other gear.
The debris itself is comprised of everything plastic you can conceive of: automobile parts, toys, cigarette lighters, beverage bottles, and countless tiny pieces beyond identification.
While just about every country on the planet contributes to the problem, certain countries lead the way.
Here’s a graphic of the top 10 annual global plastic polluters, also showing where the USA stands in relation, contributing 336,000 metric tons of plastic waste to the oceans every year:
Top 10 Global Plastic Polluters – And How the USA Compares
Graph showing annual global plastic polluters by countryData courtesy of the Wall Street Journal
How Plastic Garbage Ends Up in the Ocean
Most of the world’s major producers and consumers of plastic do not have waste management facilities in place to handle it all. They lack adequate collection, recycling, and disposal systems.
Some of the garbage is deliberately and illegally dumped straight into the ocean. Even where garbage dumps exist, poor containment can lead to wind-blown plastics ending up in rivers, lakes, and ultimately oceans.
In the Philippines, one city has dumped its garbage on a beach for the past 50 years.
On an individual level, garbage left or lost at the beach or dropped in rivers contributes to the problem. Even plastics flushed down the toilet can sometimes find their way to the ocean.
Once it’s in the ocean, however, where does it all end up?
The Lost Continent of Garbage
Kind of like how the great thinkers of the ancient world suggested the (former) existence of Atlantis, some modern scientists predicted there would be a large accumulation of garbage drifting somewhere in the ocean.
The theory was based on the knowledge that tons of floating garbage was known to be in the ocean, and an understanding that ocean currents would cause it to collect in a few key locations.
Despite a solid theory, no one could actually find the island of garbage. Even satellite imagery didn’t reveal its location. Perhaps it was Atlantis all over again: a nice theory but entirely untrue.
It would take a chance finding in 1997 by racing boat captain Charles Moore, who was making a shortcut across the Pacific after a race, to prove it was there.
In a seldom-traveled area known as the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, a convergence of currents has created what has since been dubbed the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
Image of the location of the great pacific garbage patch from the NOAABy NOAA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
How Big Is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch?
The Patch is comprised of two distinct patches, one closer to Japan, and the other between Hawaii and California. The eastern patch alone covers a surface area about the size of Texas or about 268,000 square miles.
Though you may be picturing a floating mound of trash, the reality is subtler than that, but perhaps more disturbing.
The Patch is more like a vast soup of debris, mostly comprised of microparticles of broken down plastics. While some of the plastic is visible, much of the heavier debris floats suspended down to a depth of several meters beneath the surface.
As if one giant garbage patch wasn’t enough, there are also similar patches in each of the five gyres found in the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian oceans.
Between the five gyres and as of early 2015, there is an estimated 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic debris with a total weight of nearly 270 million tons.

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