Synthetic Ocean

By Sophia Read
For The Bali Times

SEMINYAK ~ Did you know that the largest trash collection in the world is currently floating in the Pacific Ocean? Known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (comprising the Western and Eastern Pacific Garbage Patches), scientists estimate that approximately 3.5–10 million tons of rubbish cover an area at least twice the size of Texas – and that the majority of it is plastic.

It is borne by a current called the North Pacific Gyre, which runs clockwise through the Northern Pacific Ocean. The circular motion of the current draws debris into the centre, where it rests in a little-visited area of the ocean between the East Coast of the mainland US and Hawaii.

Researchers estimate that about 80 percent of the rubbish is land generated, and 20 percent from ships at sea, and that it would take several billion US dollars to clear it up. This is of course unlikely to occur, as no one is in a hurry to claim responsibility. So, it’s there, and there appears to be very little anyone can do about it. Our efforts need to be focused on ensuring that it does not increase.

How has this happened? Mainly due to our invention of plastic, unfortunately. Plastic does not biodegrade – it photodegrades, simply breaking down into smaller and smaller toxic particles, and it can take hundreds of years to do this. In the meantime it is just floating in the ocean, posing a threat to any marine life that encounters it. Many fish, marine mammals and birds mistake it for their favorite foods and eat it. Plastic has no nutritional value, and also, does not pass through the system, so the creatures simply fill up with plastic, and eventually starve to death. Marine invertebrates are becoming entangled in the indescribable amount of monofilament fishing line and dying. The UN estimates that more than one million seabirds are killed due to plastic in the oceans each year, and more than 100,000 marine creatures.

It’s not just these creatures that are ingesting the plastic – we are as well. Small pieces of plastic called “nurdles” are used to produce plastics. Hundreds of tones of these end up in the oceans every year, and they then enter the food chain, as they are ingested by marine creatures.

The mess is not visible on satellite pictures, as it is translucent, not a solid entity (one scientist describes it as “more like a soup), and it floats slightly below the surface of the ocean. Having found it, however, no one appears to be particularly surprised by its existence. With modern plastic degrade times nearly all being in excess of 50 years, that means that “every little piece of plastic manufactured in the past 50 years that has made it into the ocean is still out there somewhere,” according to Tony Andrady of the US-based Research Triangle Institute.

Plastic bags are estimated to account for about 90 percent of the debris in our oceans. The world is aware of the problem, and many countries are introducing bans or taxes to deter the use of thin plastic shopping bags. Ireland introduced a tax on plastic bans as far back as 2002, and has seen a reduction on their use of 90 percent. Countries around the world such as South Africa, Eritrea, Rwanda, Somalia, Tanzania, Taiwan, China, Italy, Belgium, India and many more have introduced either high taxes or outright bans on the thinnest of plastic bags.

Unfortunately, switching from plastic to paper bags, widely seen as the “greenest” option, is in fact more harmful to our environment that continuing to use plastic. Paper bags take about five times as much energy, and therefore fuel and pollutants, to produce. And, obviously, to make paper you need wood, and switching from plastic to a material that causes deforestation would be rather defeating the purpose of the exercise.

The main problem appears to be the mindset of the consumer, although we are all aware that reusable cloth bags are better but single-use plastic bags are much more convenient. There is another viable alternative – cornstarch bags, which biodegrade completely after use. They are, of course, more expensive than plastic.

Various communities have, however, successfully removed normal plastic bags from their lives – is a great website detailing how one English town managed it. It’s possible, and rapidly becoming imperative, that we all follow their example, if not our throwaway society is in danger of drowning in our own refuse.

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