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A plague of plastic soup
Text by Bonnie McKenna
When you use a plastic bag or purchase a beverage that is in a plastic bottle do you consider where it goes when you are finished with it? Do you think it goes to a landfill to be buried or to a recycling center to be destroyed or recycled? Think again, not all plastic makes it to landfills or recycling centers; much of it ends up in giant ocean vortexes called gyres (see the sidebar for information about gyres).
Within these gyres is a plastic soup of waste. The Northern Pacific gyre alone is estimated to contain more than 100 million tons of flotsam. Some estimate that it is the size of Texas and others say it is as large as the United States.
Nearly 90 percent of the floating material is plastic and four-fifths of the rubbish comes from land. It is swept in by wind or washed in by rain off streets, highways and unconstrained landfills into streams, rivers and eventually out into the sea.
The other 10 percent comes from ships; much of it from illegally jettisoned fishing gear such as nets, floats and synthetic ropes to avoid the expense of proper disposal after entering port.
In addition, every year thousands of cargo containers fall overboard in stormy seas spilling their contents. This debris, according to Dr. Curtis Ebbesmeyer, an American oceanographer who has been studying ocean currents for more than 40 years, can spin for decades in one of a dozen or more gigantic gyres around the globe.
The United Nations Environmental Program, in 2006, estimated that 46,000 pieces of plastic litter are floating on every square mile (3.429 sq. km.) of ocean. According to Greenpeace, 70 percent of the plastic will sink damaging life on the ocean floor and the other 30 percent will end up in a gyre and/or wash up on a distant shore.
The idea that this vast expanse of debris is akin to an island of plastic garbage that you can walk on, is incorrect; there is no mass, it is a soup of plastic. The plastic is distributed throughout the water column as well as the sediment on the sea floor. For this reason, there are no satellite photos of the debris.
Eventually, plastic will break down into carbon dioxide and water from exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet rays. On land, this breakdown can take decades, even centuries. At sea, it takes even longer because seawater keeps the plastics cool while algae, barnacles and other marine growth limit ultraviolet exposure. According to Anthony L. Andrade, a polymer chemist with the U.S.-based Research Triangle Institute, every piece of plastic manufactured in the past 50 years that made it to the ocean is still out there.
In 1997, Charles Moore founder of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation had his first encounter with what is often referred to as the “Pacific Garbage Patch,” more than nine years ago. Moore was returning to Southern California from Hawaii after the Trans-Pac sailboat race when he decided to take a more northerly course just to try a new route. He first began noticing a line of plastic bags just below the surface of the sea, that was followed by an ugly tangle of junk: nets, ropes, bottles, motor-oil jugs, tires, and toys. Moore could not believe what he was seeing. Out in this desolate area of the ocean was a stew of plastic rubbish. He began to realize that the trail of plastic went on for hundreds of miles.
As his boat, Alguita, glided for a week through the bobbing toxic debris trapped in the area that is properly referred to as the Northern Pacific Subtropical Gyre, Moore began to wonder how all the plastic wound up in the ocean, where it came from and what did it mean? His questions were soon answered and the discovery had a profound effect on his life.
Moore has since dedicated his life to study what is going on out there and spread the word of his findings. Wanting to make a proper study of the rubbish in the gyre, Moore enlisted Dr. Steven B. Weisberg, an expert on marine environmental monitoring to develop methods for analyzing the gyres contents.
To get an accurate statistical model, Weisberg’s group came up with a plan to make a series of trawls with a surface plankton net, along paths within a circle with a 564-mile (907.67-km) radius. The area of the circle would be exactly one-million square miles (3,429,904 sq. km.). Trawling would begin in the central pressure cell of the high-pressure system that creates the gyre. A manta trawl, an apparatus resembling a manta ray with wings, a broad mouth and trailing a net with fine mesh would be used to skim the surface of the ocean.
A year later, Moore and his crew set out aboard Alguita to test his theories, and to sample and analyze the debris in the gyre. Eight days out of port, in a becalmed sea, miles from their destination, they decided to practice their manta trawl technique. After trawling only three and a half miles, they pulled in the manta. What they saw amazed them. Within the rich broth of minute sea creatures was hundreds of colored plastic fragments; a plastic-plankton soup.
There was plenty of large debris in the path of Alguita too, by the end of the trip they collected about a ton of debris. The items included:
  • a drum of hazardous chemicals
  • an inflated volleyball
  • a plastic coat hangar with swivel hook
  • a cathode-ray tube for a 19 inch television
  • an inflated tire mounted on a steel rim
  • numerous glass and plastic fishing floats
  • plastic bottles
  • tangles of nets, lines, hawsers mostly made from polypropylene
In 2001, Moore published his 1998 findings in the Marine Pollution Bulletin. From the collection and analysis of debris, it was estimated that there was six-pounds (13.2 kg) of plastic floating in the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre for every pound of naturally occurring zooplankton. In 2008, the same 1998 study was replicated and Moore found the ratio of plastic to zooplankton had doubled in nine years.
In subsequent trips, photographers have captured underwater images of jellyfish hopelessly entangled in frayed lines and transparent filter feeding organisms with colored plastic fragments in their bellies. In June of this year, Moore set out for yet another trip to the Garbage Patch to study the ever growing volume of plastic collecting in the gyre.
Follow the Alguita by going to, http://ovralguita.blogspot.com
The potential scope of the problem is greater than entanglement and ingestion. It has been discovered, by Japanese researchers, that the floating plastic fragments are sponges for DDT and PCB’s and other oily pollutants. These plastic fragments are then ingested by jellies and salps living in the ocean and in turn are eaten by fish and so the poisons pass into the food web, which leads, in some cases, to humans.
A recently published article in the Christian Science Monitor shows that plastic has been collecting in the Atlantic gyre as well, this according to an ongoing study by Dr. Kara Lavender Law at the Sea Education Association in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. Law said that analysis of the plastics picked up by SEA’s research shows much of it comes from consumer items made of polyethylene and polypropylene, which include items used in our common everyday life. Out at sea, these plastics suffocate sea turtles and choke sea birds which mistake the floating debris for food.
During the first week of the search for the remains of the Air France plane, off the coast of Brazil, investigators thought that they had located pieces of the plane, but on closer examination it was found to be nothing more than rubbish. Ebbesmeyer, quoted in a CNN report said, “That area [the crash site] has got lots of debris that’s just out there, coming from Europe heading over to the America’s.” The search for remains of the plane highlights what environmentalist claim is one of the most pressing issues for the world today, plastic pollution.
It is estimated that between 500 billion and 1 trillion plastic bags are used worldwide each year and the number of plastic bottles, used each year, number in the trillions. Plastic bags can take as long at 1000 years to biodegrade; plastic bottles even longer. One scientist reports that these figures are only estimates because no one will live long enough to find out.
Now, when you dispose of a plastic bag or plastic drink bottle consider its life-cycle; regardless of whether it goes to a landfill, to a recycling center or makes its way into the ocean it will never naturally biodegrade in our lifetime.
For additional information, Google: ocean gyres garbage.
Look for forthcoming articles dealing with the plague of plastic in our oceans.
  • The effects of plastic ingestion by marine animals.
  • Algalita Marine Research Foundation
Go to www.xray-mag.com to view the entire article.
A gyre is any range of large-scale wind, swirling vortex and ocean currents. Gyres are caused by the Coriolis effect, planetary vorticity, and friction, which establish circulation patterns from the wind curl. As the water flows in the oceans, it carries heat from ocean to ocean and from the equator to the poles. Variations in the transfer of heat lead to variations in weather patterns.
The earth’s major gyres:
  • North Atlantic Subtropical Gyre that includes the Gulf Stream, Labrador Current, East Greenland Current, North Atlantic current, and the North Atlantic Equatorial current that contains the Sargasso Sea.

  • North Pacific Subpolar Gyre.

  • North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, also know as the North Pacific Gyre. This gyre covers most of the northern Pacific Ocean, located between the equator and 50°N latitude and covers approximately 10 million square miles (34 million km²). The gyre has a clockwise circular pattern and is made up of four prevailing ocean currents: the North Pacific Current to the north, the California Current to the east, the North Equatorial Current to the south and the Kuroshio Current to the west. An accumulation of man-made debris, known as the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” is collecting in this gyre.

  • Indian Ocean Subtropical Gyre.

  • South Atlantic Subtropical Gyre that contains the Brazil Current system.

  • South Pacific Subtropical Gyre that contains the East Australian Current system.

  • North Pacific Subpolar Gyre that contains the Alaska Gyre.
The North Pacific Subtropical Gyre is made up of two large masses of ever-accumulating rubbish, known as the Western and Eastern Pacific Garbage Patches. It is in this gyre, a huge swirling mass of plastic soup, estimated by some to be the size of the United States that the plastic bag or plastic water bottle, thought to be in a landfill or recycled, may end up.