The Green Light Column

Ever heard of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch? What about the “trash island”? Or maybe the term “plastic ocean” has crossed your mental radar.

A gyre is, according to Merriam-Webster, a giant, circular oceanic surface current. The NPG is an immense clockwise current that is between the U.S. and Japan that just so happens to be swirling with trash, plastic trash to be more precise. The ocean is basically “downhill” from all of mankind. Everything we “toss out” has the potential of ending up in the oceans. The North Pacific Gyre (NPG) happens to be the largest of the trash vortexes on the planet. Due to this phenomenon, it is also the most studied. It was predicted in 1988 on paper by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and then discovered in 1997 by Charles J. Moore, an oceanographer and boat racer. The NPG trash island, actually dubbed the “Eastern Garbage Patch” (EGP), has been studied significantly although the size of it is unknown; like a living creature it is in a state of flux. Current estimates place the size of the EGP between 700,000 km2 to greater than 15 million km2. Many environmental problems exist for us and other creatures because of the EGP. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency out of 50,000 albatross chicks which die annually, around 200,000 expire from dehydration and starvation. These chicks have twice the quantity of plastic in their stomachs as chicks dying from other reasons.

One individual, John Klavitter, a wildlife biologist working for the U.S. Wildlife Federation, stated that as the albatross parents scour the ocean for food to consume and regurgitate into he chicks mouths, they ingest Lego blocks, clothespins, fishing lures, all sorts of plastic products. Klavitter says that these plastics perforate the stomach or block the gizzard or esophagus on the bird. The albatross are not the only casualties: current estimates place annual marine bird deaths due to trash at 1 million and about 10,000 seals, sea lions, whales, dolphins, sea turtles and other marine wildlife die per year too. Another problem is the more serious of the threats: smaller plastic materials in the ocean act as a concentration medium for toxic compounds such as PCB and DDT compounds. Plastics are estimated to hold significantly more million times the amount of toxic substances than water alone. Ingestion of these substances by marine life causes biological damage and even genetic mutations. This means that for those of us who enjoy seafood, we have a greater possibility of eating these same compounds, ones proven to cause cancer in humans. So the question is: what do we, as Americans, do to fix this existing problem and quell any new global manifestations? Or do we not do anything, thereby allowing this to continue and grow and become a real health hazard for future generations? Or is this not a concern because it will work itself out?

Now that one is a nice thought, but it rarely happens in situations of man-made environmental damage, especially considering that modern plastics do not biodegrade. At the rate of 20,000 tons of marine litter annually and illegally dumped into the North Sea, and who knows how much trash run-off from the land-locked folks, we, the people, need to make a decision fast.