Saturday, August 12, 2006

Eastern Garbage Patch

Just under 100 years ago, in 1909, Leo Hendrik Baekeland invented the first plastic based on a synthetic polymer - Bakelite. Since then plastics have changed our world in a great many ways. The problem is that practically all the plastics we have made in the last 100 years are still with us, particularly those that end up in the ocean where biodegradation, which is slow to begin with, is even slower.

If you've been to a beach in your life you will have seen how much plastic waste washes up. But it turns out this isn't the worst of it. Ocean currents, caused by winds and the earth's rotation, create large circular systems, or gyres. The center of these gyres, thousands of miles from continental land, contain vast accumulations of floating garbage. An accumulation in the large gyre in the pacific is known as the Eastern Garbage Patch. Situated about halfway between California and Hawaii this floating garbage dump is about twice the size of Texas. To save you reading that again I'll just type it again - a floating patch of garbage in the Pacific that is twice the size of Texas. The amounts of plastic involved are staggering, using trawl samples it is estimated that there is already six kilos of plastic for every kilo of naturally occurring plankton.

This plastic is proving disastrous for oceanic islands. For example Midway atoll is littered with decomposing bird remains, piles of feathers and bone surrounding colorful piles of bottle caps, plastic dinosaurs, checkers, highlighter pens, perfume bottles, fishing line and small Styrofoam balls. It is estimated that albatross feed their chicks about 5 tons of plastic a year on Midway alone. Albatross fly hundreds of miles in their search for food for their young and their flight paths from Midway take them directly over the Eastern Garbage Patch. A piece of plastic found in an albatross stomach last year bore a serial number that was traced to a World War II seaplane shot down in 1944.

I find the idea of this vast patch of slowly circling garbage out there in the middle of nowhere to be profoundly depressing.



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