(Photo courtesy of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation )
Ah plastic, the magical medium that makes so many of my favorite toys — apparently there is an entire new land made of this wonder stuff! Ocean researcher Charles Moore was taking part in a race across the Pacific in the late 90s and decided to take the route-less-traveled on his way home — and wound up engulfed in a mass of garbage as far as the eye could see. (That’s him up above.) Composed almost entirely of plastic (much of it decades old), this isn’t a heap of trash that got dumped there — it’s all gathered up and pulled together by circular rotational currents called a gyre that draws in the flotsam and keeps it there. Before plastic, the trash it collected would just break down, but no more. Called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the Eastern Garbage Patch or the Pacific Trash Vortex, this non-biodegrading trash continent is estimated to be about twice the size of Texas and weigh over 3 million tons. It’s floating out there between Japan and San Francisco, the biggest garbage heap in the world, and it’s getting bigger.
I know what you’re thinking — if it doesn’t biodegrade, what’s the big deal? It’s just sitting out there, real estate is expensive, let’s book our next vacation on colorful Plastic Land! But the stuff is actually photodegrading, which means that while it never truly “goes away”, the plastic is breaking up into smaller bits which are then — wait for it — eaten by jellyfish and other sea creatures and marine birds. And now it’s entered the food chain. The small bits are called “mermaid tears” and “nurdles”, which make them sound much cuter and friendlier than they are. Nurdles actually soak up chemicals so when they get eaten they’re like poison pellets. The rest of it just breaks down into pollutants, making a giant poison soup of the sea. Currently there’s six times more plastic crap in the water than zooplankton there. Let’s have sushi tonight!
Friend, multi-talented comic artist and parent Pete Friedrich tackles this subject matter in his new comic “The Adventures of Foamy & Leafy,” which just got reviewed in Publishers Weekly! It follows two pieces of discarded plastic as they travel the ocean and end up in the garbage patch. “When I see how much plastic is purchased and given away in the process of raising children and our Western life in general, it is staggering.” Pete’s been donating the comic to schools and other organizations to raise awareness of the issue. “I hope this book will help turn the tide and encourage sustainable purchasing practices.”
Has panic set in? (No? Really? Go back and read this again.) Things you can do: use less plastic. This seems really obvious but there are so many articles right now about “green this” and “green that” and that’s all terrific but the most green thing you can do is just buy and use less damn stuff! There are tons of great reusable bags, many of which ball up teensy tiny so you have no excuse to not always have one with you. Until recycling programs take all plastics (ours just takes #s 1 and 2), we should all try to find a place to drop off all those other plastics for recycling so we’re not adding to Trash Island.
And please oh please stop buying water in plastic bottles (I’m talking to you, mom). Only 1 in 5 ever gets recycled and the PET plastic is made from crude oil. 17 million barrels annually, just to make the bottles for American consumption — that’s enough to fuel 1 million U.S. cars for a year.
UPDATE 4.28.08: Got an email from the folks at Vice/VBS.tv. “We had read all the articles about this environmental problem but didn’t see much in the way of video. So curiosity and the challenge compelled us west to the middle of the Pacific Ocean to show what other people had only been writing about. We go all the way out ( 2 straight days on a sail boat) expecting to see a floating dump, looking for our money shot that will make us famous.