How we’re turning the ocean into plastic soup

Posted by Laura Grant on March 5, 2009
Posted in Green News

In the late 1990s Charles Moore discovered a huge swath of plastic rubbish, “the size of two Texases”, in the Pacific Ocean. Discarded plastic accumulates there in an enormous slow whirlpool created by competing air currents known as the Pacific Gyre. Moore now carries out research on the plastic floating in the Pacific and tries to raise awareness about the problem through the Algalita Marine Research Foundation in California. The link above is a talk he gave in February on plastic pollution and it’s well worth watching.

Plastic is a petrochemical product and it never biodegrades, it photodegrades which means it is broken down into ever smaller pieces by sunlight over a very long period of time. Much of the plastic floating in the Pacific Gyre is in the form of small particles, so rather than a rubbish dump of floating bottles and bags, Moore describes it as a “plastic soup”.

A brochure on the foundation’s website says the following:

  • A disposable nappy can take 500 years to photodegrade
  • A plastic six-pack ring can take 400 years
  • A plastic bottle can take 450 years

The first synthetic plastic, Bakelite, was produced in 1907. So, in effect, 100 years’ worth of plastic has accumulated on Earth and it’s going to keep piling up unless we do something about it.

The Pacific ocean rubbish dump has a terrible effect on marine life. Many marine animals mistake floating plastics for food. Baby albatrosses have been found with bottle tops and other plastic rubbish in their stomachs, fed to them by their parents. Plastics eaten by turtles have blocked their intestines, making the animals float so they can’t dive for food, says the website. Animals also become entangled in fishing nets and line.

All that plastic in the ocean can also affect human health. According to the research foundation the plastic in the ocean absorbs pollutants such as PCBs and pesticides. Marine organisms eat the tiny bits of plastic and these pollutants accumulate in their tissues. In this way the pollutants enter the food chain and into the food we eat. And as a result, no fishmonger can guarantee you an organic wild fish, Moore says in the TED talk.

About 80 percent of the rubbish in the ocean originates on land, washing down storm water drains and rivers into the sea. So the moral of the story is: Use less plastic

There’s an interesting article here about a research trip with Moore’s foundation to the Pacific Gyre. It’s worth a look just to see Flyp Media’s stunning online magazine. The Algalita Research Foundation’s website is also a good place to learn more.

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