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I was profoundly shocked to see these pictures of the floating rubbish in the Pacific ocean yesterday. See some disturbing the pictures of this Global ecological disaster here.

The size of the problem: Plastic rubbish, referred to as “rubbish soup” or “trash vortex”, which has been accumulated in the sea for decades, has created two floating continents up to twice the size of USA in the middle of the Pacific ocean, and continues to grow at an alarming rate. Plastic is not biodegradable and cannot be digested, so it stays around forever. It does however break up into smaller pieces as the result of exposure to sun’s rays (or photodegrade) and after that, causes untold environmental harm.

Where does it come from? Around 20% of the floating “soup” comes from rubbish discarded from ships and oil platforms, with the rest coming from land.

How it was discovered: Because the debris are translucent, to a great extent broken up into small pieces and float just below the surface, they are invisible to satellites. Bizarre as it seems, it was discovered only by chance in 1997 by an americal oceanographer Charles Moore who was taking a shortcut home after a yacht race and literally sailed into the Eastern rubbish patch. He says that this was an ocean he had never known:

There were shampoo caps and soap bottles and plastic bags and fishing floats as far as I could see. Here I was in the middle of the ocean, and there was nowhere I could go to avoid the plastic

He ended up sailing through it for a week and said that the rubbish float probably went on for hundreds of miles. It was then estimated that the size of the patch was the size of Texas and was going to double in size in the next decade.

Why the Pacific? A combination of Pacific currents sitting underneath a stable high atmospheric pressure system with very light winds (also called the Gyre), typical of the Pacific ocean’s natural rhythm, cause the the “soup” to accumulate during the winter months in two areas of the ocean, so that it reaches its maximum density by spring. Changing currents then disperse it so that some of it is washed ashore in great quantities, small pieces creating plastic dunes, large pieces visible to an untrained eye.

Environmental impact: The “soup” is causing harm in several ways:

  • It is highly concentrated (outnumbering plankton by up to 6 times and rising) and can be broken up into small pieces. Birds mistake plastic for edible things and pick out large amounts of it, later dying of malnutrition, blocked digestion, or getting slowly poisoned as the result
  • As plastic breaks down further and further, it enters the food chain of the entire living ocean and gets into the human food chain
  • Particularly dangerously, huge masses of tiny plastic pellets called nurdles – the raw materials of the plastics industry – are lost or spilled every year. They are likened to chemical sponges that attract dangerous chemicals like pesticide DDT, which also enters every living creature’s the food chain. Consequences include cancer, obesity, infertility, immunity problems, and many other nasties.

Algalita Foundation: Charles Moore was so alarmed by his discovery that he set up a non-profit organisation Algalita Marine Research foundation dedicated to protection of the marine environment through research, education and restoration.

What can be done by us: To stop the plastic soup from getting any larger, we need to change the way we think about plastic in our daily lives.

The easiest-to-do things include:

  • Use canvas or recycled bags for your shopping
  • Use items packaged in metal, glass, or paper packaging – instead of plastic
  • Spread the word! Not everyone is aware of the dangers of plastics
  • Speak to manufacturers and ask them – why do they still use non-biodegradable packaging? There are plenty of much greener alternatives out there and people want to see these used.

It’s a call for action. It is up to us to make the change, and demand a corresponding change in the attitudes of industry and commerce.

For more information about Algalita, check out this site


December 2019
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