Creating a Plastic Ocean

We’ve all heard about the plastic ‘garbage patch’ the size of Texas swirling around in a gyre the North Pacific. There have been debates about how it got there, how long it will last and what it comprises of, but no one really knew the answers to these questions. There just wasn’t enough data to make even an approximate calculation, so theories just kept coming, and extrapolating … and debating – and being extrapolated again. These unconfirmed figures were so open to interpretation that they lead to the fuelling of those who wanted to disprove that the human community has a plastic problem, and to the extent of the damage it was causing the earth. This problem has been debated for some years.

After five decades of establishing, collecting, collating and organizing essential data, researchers at UC Santa Barbara’s National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis recently calculated how much plastic was going into the oceans each year and from which countries, presenting their findings at the annual meeting for the American Association for the Advancement of Science. What they found was astonishing not because it dispelled the myths that there was any pollution in our oceans, but more so that it bore a testament to the staggering ignorance of humankind as to the extent of which we were polluting our own resources with complete disregard to our own future. The results of the study were saddening, alarming and inspiring all in equal measure.

The report for the AAAS put it at a figure of ‘more than’ 4.8 million metric tons of plastic waste finds its way into our oceans every year, but researchers fear it could be as high as 12.7 million metric tons. UCSB felt comfortable using the figure of 8 million metric tons in all their discussions and examples.

“Using the average density of uncompacted plastic waste, 8 million metric tons — the midpoint of our estimate — would cover an area 34 times the size of Manhattan ankle-deep in plastic waste,” co-author Roland Geyer, who teaches industrial ecology at UCSB, said in a press release. According to Geyer, 8 million metric tons is also the amount of plastic produced worldwide in the year 1961.

It’s such a huge number that it’s hard to comprehend how huge it is. Let’s put it into perspective. By the calculation Wilson used if we piled all that waste up vertically in Manhattan rather than spread it out, Manhattan would be 17 feet deep in rotting plastic garbage.

If that doesn’t concern you, let’s look at it this way. 1 metric ton equals 2,205 pounds. An average elephant weighs approximately 13,000 pounds. If we convert metric tons into elephants – The amount of plastic we flush into our oceans each year is equivalent to 1,325,924 elephants. That’s nearly 1,326,000 elephant sized pieces of plastic going into our oceans – every year. Even sadder to comprehend is that there are only an estimated 450,000 elephants left in the world, and that number is decreasing by 30% annually. How much more damage can we do to our planet? It gets even more dismal when you realise we are working from a ‘most likely’ figure. The actual figure could be half as much again.

But back to the plastic elephants swirling around in the toxic Texas in the North pacific. How long does plastic last in the ocean? Does it magically biodegrade at a faster rate or break down into something less sinister. Sadly, no. Plastic in or out of the ocean takes thousands of year to biodegrade, making the gyre of plastic garbage the size of Texas not just pretty pieces of plastic floating in an attractive swirl, but a toxic soup of varying sizes of plastic detritus, from molecules to elephants, in a dangerous manmade concoction that fears no man, mammal or tide.

Another depressingly fascinating thing was that the gyre in the North Pacific was one that was widely known but there were others. There is our friend in the North Pacific, one on the South Pacific, one in the North Atlantic, with a twin in the South Atlantic and one in the Indian Ocean. So we now have five Texas’s – well six if you include the original one not made of plastic – and they’ll soon be more if we keep pushing 1.35 million plastic elephants into the ocean each year. We seem to be blinded by the fact that it’s ‘not in my back yard’. If it all collected on your front lawn you’d soon be picketing Parliament Hill to devise a way to clean it up, and when you saw the enormity of the problem, you’d demand it was cleaned up in an environmentally friendly way. Out of sight should not mean out of mind in this instance.

The report gets worse – if you can imagine that. It also highlights that the plastic in not localised. It’s true that the gyres are very slightly smaller where the surrounding coastline is less populated, but the plastics are found to be from geographical locations from all around the world. The evidence the UCSB found was that due to the abundance of micro plastics, or small particles of partially broken down material, and smaller items in the water that the material was swilled between gyres at an alarming rate. In short, it didn’t matter where it came from; these toxic items travelled the seas are collecting in great masses where the water took them. The size of the plastic ‘patch’ doesn’t even correlate to density of population in the vicinity. There is no way to contain them or control them.

Did you think it couldn’t get any worse? Do you want one more piece of distressing news? Scientists have no idea where 99% of that plastic will end up. The most likely place – is in the sea life, like fish. Like the fish … we eat. The plastic gets smaller in size due to the fact it takes thousands of years to biodegrade mixed with the constant motion of the sea, so it can float out of the giant garbage patches and are ingested by sea life. In effect, we end up eating out own waste.

Turning our oceans into a giant plastic garbage can is not a new problem. We have known about for quite a few decades, in which the time has been spent debating, blaming and denying the problem, but no one ever thought to try and solve it. It feels like the scholars were so busy fighting each other over the existence and scope of the problem that no one thought to think up a solution. So what is the solution?

One of the reasons a solution has not been found is the difficulty in collecting the garbage. The sea is a harsh environment and within a few short years the plastics are broken down into small, fingernail sized pieces. B Wilson from devised “an imaginary “supertanker” — that is, a giant ship that could theoretically sail through the seas, skimming out the plastic junk as it goes (much of which hovers down to 90 feet below the surface).

No such ship has been outfitted to skim plastic. But let’s say it did, and it could hold 500 million pounds of plastic. You’d need 630 of them to do the job, or about 17 percent of the planet’s current fleet of oil tankers.”

Scale is definitely a problem.

Another problem is that some of the plastics will find their way to shore and could be collected and recycled, but not all the countries that have shoreline have the facilities to recycle, or the facilities to collect beach loads of plastic and transport them to the nearest facility.

Even if it could be collected the question is raised about what would be done with it? Currently we can only recycle so much as there is a limited market for such products so scientists conclude that we would need to convince manufacturers to design with more recycled plastics, and one bio-chemist is a staunch advocate for burning it. His theory that as it contains no sulphur or ash so it would be harmless – apart from all the other toxic compounds that plastic contains that would be released into the atmosphere and contribute a massive amount to climate change.

One solution the scientists don’t seem to have considered is the cheapest, most workable solution – that is not to produce so much plastic in the first place. If they don’t produce it, it can’t end up in the oceans. Even little steps toward removing plastic from your life makes a difference. The average person produces 600 pounds of plastic based waste each year which means that always taking a re-useable bag to the store or only buying fresh, local produce could reduce your plastic footprint by as much as 10%. Reducing is the only real viable option and we need to champion the cause. If we lessen the demand for plastic production the manufacturers will follow suit. They will have to if they wish to stay solvent.

Reducing our dependence on the very substance that is toxifying our oceans is in effect saving ourselves, and our future. The earth simply cannot support the level of pollution we continue to put on it. Reusing or recycling plastic waste still means that the plastic exists and will ultimately end up in the ocean. Look round your room, look round your home, look round your life. 4% of the total annual production of plastic will end up in our oceans. Count them. That’s one in every twenty of this year’s purchases, not one in twenty of the total plastic in your home. As much as you don’t wish to admit it, 4% of the plastic products in your life will leak into the oceans by reasons out of your control. So consider any plastic purchase very carefully. You know where it will end up.

This report is inspiring as it lays out the facts of the scale of the problem and the fact we are looking at a massive unsustainable situation we need to start to correct now. Reducing the plastic in our lives in not a difficult thing. Recycled paper versions of common household items are readily available, as is items made of sustainable bamboo. Continuing to buy plastic is not an option. Set the example and be positive about the effect you can have on the environment with the things you do each day.

When we are inspired to reduce the plastic elephants that we personally push into our oceans each year, maybe we can then turn our attention to live ones we need to save on land.



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