October 2008

It Could Be Worse

Author: Craig Hysell

At times, responsibility does not really seem to be a strong suit of the human race. Greed often overpowers altruism. Fear deters change. Desire trumps reason.

We create tools to advance civilization. We study science to create a better lifestyle and produce longer lasting health. We develop weapons to protect what’s ours or advance our cause. Murder, genocide and war are often by-products of the human race’s pursuit for a better life.

And now we seem to be killing the planet. Or, at the very least, killing it faster than it wants to die. Still, global pollution has billions and billions of people rolling their eyes and muttering, “What difference do I make?” Which really translates into, “What difference does it make?”

There is no doubt that apathy is a liberating solution, but how can most of us look into a child’s imploring eyes and feel no responsibility for the future? What difference can we make? We could start simply. We could begin by throwing our trash in a trash can.

The Great Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch

“I want to say just one word to you. Just one word. Are you listening? Plastics.”

Perhaps Mr. McGuire’s advice for a great future in The Graduate was a bit shortsighted. Maybe the world would be a bit better off if we had looked at it from Benjamin’s angle and asked, “Just how do mean that, sir?”

There are six gyres (six swirling vortexes) in the world’s oceans. The ten million square mile North Pacific Gyre is made up of four ocean currents that create a relatively stable center—like a well-formed eye in a hurricane. The eye of these gyres are often known as the horse latitudes. They are calm, receive relatively little wind or rain and colonialists used to conserve drinking water and lighten their cargo loads by dumping their horses into the ocean when they got stuck in them.

In the horse latitudes of the North Pacific Gyre is the largest landfill in the world. Researchers believe that two areas of trash form a garbage patch that is twice the size of the continental United States!

The Great Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch is essentially made up of two areas of trash, one to the east and the other to the west. It starts five-hundred nautical miles off the coast of California and stretches across the Pacific toward the coast of Japan. Charles Moore, who has been researching the patch, estimates there are 100 million tons of debris floating in the gyre. Ninety percent of it is plastic.

The circular motion of the ocean currents draws the waste material into the eye of the vortex. Moore estimates concentrations of 3,340,000 pieces of plastic per square kilometer. What is worse is that the plastic does not biodegrade, but photodegrades. The waste disintegrates into smaller and smaller pieces called mermaid tears or nurdles. These polymers, resembling zooplankton—a main source of food in the area—are not easily digested and act as mops for other toxins and chemicals. In 2001 the mass of plastic in the North Pacific Gyre exceeded zooplankton by a ratio of 7 to 1.

Jellyfish and krill mistake the waste for food and ingest it. Birds and other fish feed on the jellyfish and krill. The poison is now a part of the food chain. Animals’ brains mistake the toxins for estradiol, a sex hormone representing estrogen, and create a critical impact on reproductive and sexual functioning. On top of which, an estimated 1,000,000 birds die each year from ingesting the ocean debris.

The world produces about 200 billion pounds of plastic every year. Ten percent of it winds up in the ocean. Eighty percent of it comes from land and the other 20% comes from ships at sea, mainly cruise ship pollution. (A cruise ship with 3,000 passengers and crew can produce 8 tons of solid waste in a single week.) It is estimated that objects in the North Pacific Gyre will remain trapped for 16 years or more. Items that escape the center of the vortex eventually make landfall. Some beaches in the Hawaiian archipelago are now buried under five to ten feet of trash.

What can one person do about all this madness? After all, it’s so preposterously gigantic, what difference does it make? The miracle of monumental change is that it almost always starts extremely small. Usually it’s nothing more than one idea or one action from one person. Here’s a great idea: make sure you throw your trash in the right container. And, if you really want to shake things up: recycle.

Every square mile of ocean is home to 46,000 pieces of floating plastic. If you believe accountability is trying to seduce you, congratulations, you just graduated.

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