Ask Eartha Steward: The plastic-plankton soup
February 20, 2008
Dear Eartha: I received a disturbing e-mail about a plastic “island” in the Pacific Ocean that continues to grow every year. I know that we live states away from the ocean but I feel that I’m still somehow responsible. Is this some kind of hoax or is there really a large plastic dump accumulating in our oceans?
” Connie M.
Plastics, plastics everywhere and not a soda to drink? There are definitely reasons to be alarmed, Connie. This is not a bad joke or an environmental scam to say the least. Yes, there is a plastic something growing in the Pacific. But, scientists have described it as more of a plastic “soup” than an island.
It was discovered over a decade ago as floating plastic garbage between the coasts of California and Japan. At the time, sailors and researchers sized the Pacific garbage patch as larger than the state of Texas.
Since then, biologists have dedicated their lives to studying the plastic mass. A few years ago it was reported to have grown to double the size of Texas. Now, this plastic sea monster is double the size of the United States!
You may have seen the gloomy photos of sea turtles gagging on plastic bags or sea birds nesting in beach landfills. However, it is difficult to relate to such tragedies when Summit County is over a thousand miles away from the Pacific Coast. Plastics still have a substantial affect on our mountain community as well as other ecosystems. In fact, the majority of the ocean’s litter originates on land.
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Yes, nearly 80 percent of the sea’s garbage started its journey inland. Think about it. Here in Summit County, not only do plastic bags and bits blow into our forests and trees, they find their way into our water systems including pristine rivers. In the city, plastics sneak into storm drains.
From Lego blocks to footballs, these petroleum-based plastics are eventually carried out to sea. So in reality, all of us, in the mountains or on the coast are responsible.
Do you remember the Academy Award-winning movie “American Beauty?” One of the characters “artistically” films a plastic bag dancing in the wind as the “most beautiful thing.”
Come on! Hawaiian locals don’t think it’s so beautiful when they find plastics stretched for miles along their coast. The last thing anyone wants to see when they escape to the beach is plastic pieces washed up on the sand like driftwood.
As much as we try to ignore the fact, trash has always been tossed into the sea. I am not in any way endorsing that trash continue to be thrown into the ocean but it happens regardless.
The ocean is a vast being and you can start to see why some people have gotten away with throwing debris, chemicals, cars dead bodies … into its seemingly bottomless pits. Once garbage is dumped, the ocean gobbles it up and the garbage magically goes away.
In the past, trash would break down in a fairly short time with the help of marine microorganisms. Once plastics were introduced into the stream, everything changed.
Instead, we created a massive plastic sea monster.
Once again we’ve thrown man-made materials into nature and now have to reap the consequences. Unfortunately, we’ve outsmarted and somewhat defeated natural bacteria needed for biodegradation.
Plastics do not biodegrade, they photodegrade. Sunlight breaks plastic into tiny toxic bits that microorganisms refuse to digest.
Even more frightening is that these small plastic polymers are sponges for pesticides, electronic wastes, and other pollutants. Not only has man created indestructible plastic particles that will out-survive even the hardiest cockroach, we have doused the particles in dangerous toxins and pollutants. And all of this is free-floating in our oceans?
Once these toxic plastic fragments are released into the ecosystem, they accumulate in underwater currents known as gyres. In this plastic garbage whirlpool, scientists have found everything from syringes and cigarette lighters to toothbrushes.
Marine biologists have even found natural zooplankton and other small sea creatures mixed in with thousands of colored plastic crumbs referred to as a “plastic-plankton soup.” Other items such as drums full of hazardous chemicals, barnacle-covered volleyballs, and plastic coat hangers have also been discovered in this whirlpool waste.
Researchers have recently discovered that there are six pounds of plastics for every pound of naturally occurring zooplankton in the ocean.
The problem is that zooplankton and plastic bits are ingested by fish and other sea creatures. Poisons then pass into our food web! I don’t know about you but I’d rather not eat from the plastic-plankton soup.
Now you are aware of the issue; and to some of you it may seem like the ocean is a faraway place and somebody else’s problem. But it is everyone’s problem. Until we stop relying on plastics as a way of life and we change our consumption behaviors, plastics will continue to be produced, used once or twice, and discarded. Why risk the plastic bottle or bag you use becoming a part of the floating plastic dump?
Become a part of the solution. Remember your reusable bags at the store, buy foods that aren’t wrapped in plastics, and speak out against needless plastics. Every step you take to decrease unnecessary plastics in your life makes a difference.
Eartha Steward is written by Carly Wier, Jennifer Kirkpatrick and Beth Orstad, consultants on all things eco and chic at the High Country Conservation Center, a nonprofit 501(c)3 organization dedicated to waste reduction and resource conservation in our mountain community. Eartha believes that you can walk gently on our planet, even if you’re wearing stylie shoes.
Submit questions to Eartha at email@example.com or to High Country Conservation Center, PO Box 4506, Frisco, CO 80443.