Oceans Of Plastic

This stuff is ashore so it doesn’t even count.

 

Dr. Evil, who deals only in millions, would be shocked by this:

A major new study of the world’s oceans has reached a shocking conclusion: Thanks to humans, there are now over 5 trillion pieces of plastic, weighing more than 250,000 tons, floating in water around the world.

With a global population of about 7.2 billion, that’s nearly 700 pieces per person.

The study, published in the journal PLOS One by Marcus Eriksen of the Five Gyres Institute in Los Angeles and a large group of colleagues, is based on data from 24 separate ocean expeditions, conducted between 2007 and 2013, to sample plastic pollution. Plastic was either observed from boats, or hauled up from the ocean by nets, in 1,571 locations. The data were then used to run an ocean model to simulate the amount and distribution of plastic debris.

That’s a nearly incomprehensible amount of plastic. What’s worse, though, is that there is probably a lot more than that:

The authors stress that they suspect their estimate is “highly conservative” — there could be a lot more plastic out there than that. For as they note, there is also a “potentially massive amount of plastic present on shorelines, on the seabed, suspended in the water column, and within organisms.”

In particular, the authors cite a figure from the trade group Plastics Europe, which suggests that 288 million tons of plastic are produced annually. Compared to a figure like this, the 250,ooo tons described in this study represent “only 0.1 % of the world annual production” — again underscoring that the numbers reported in the study, large though they are, are probably a low end estimate.

The American Chemistry Council responded to the study by stressing the importance of recycling. Okay, hard to argue. But with these sorts of stories about humanity laying waste (literally) to the planet, I keep coming back to the same thing. Consumables need to be priced differently, to reflect their environmental impact and cost. Adopting that approach–which is the only thing that radically changes industry and consumer behavior–is really the only hope of limiting human impact on the planet.

In the meantime, I will put plastic alongside the internal combustion engine as a two-edged human invention that created wealth and progress while simultaneously destroying natural capital.

Threat Assessment Gone (Very, Very) Wrong

 

So, we are filling our oceans with plastic:

I have just returned with a team of scientists from six weeks at sea conducting research in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch — one of five major garbage patches drifting in the oceans north and south of the Equator at the latitude of our great terrestrial deserts. Although it was my 10th voyage to the area, I was utterly shocked to see the enormous increase in the quantity of plastic waste since my last trip in 2009. Plastics of every description, from toothbrushes to tires to unidentifiable fragments too numerous to count floated past our marine research vessel Alguita for hundreds of miles without end. We even came upon a floating island bolstered by dozens of plastic buoys used in oyster aquaculture that had solid areas you could walk on.

Plastics are now one of the most common pollutants of ocean waters worldwide. Pushed by winds, tides and currents, plastic particles form with other debris into large swirling glutinous accumulation zones, known to oceanographers as gyres, which comprise as much as 40 percent of the planet’s ocean surface — roughly 25 percent of the entire earth.

And we are filling our atmosphere with greenhouse gases:

Runaway growth in the emission of greenhouse gases is swamping all political efforts to deal with the problem, raising the risk of “severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts” over the coming decades, according to a draft of a major new United Nations report.

Global warming is already cutting grain production by several percentage points, the report found, and that could grow much worse if emissions continue unchecked. Higher seas, devastating heat waves, torrential rain and other climate extremes are also being felt around the world as a result of human-produced emissions, the draft report said, and those problems are likely to intensify unless the gases are brought under control.

Garbage On The Garbage Patch

Here’s a classic example of a completely failed, even fraudulent, attempt at counterintuitive journalism, courtesy of Gawker: “Lies You’ve Been Told About The Pacific Garbage Patch.”

Hmm, how do the editors deliver on that eyeball-grabbing, page-view-seeking, “lies” headline? Well, the easiest way, it seems, is to create a series of straw men, then knock them down and call them “lies.”

Like: this picture was not actually taken in the middle of the Pacific. Wow, really?

And: there is not actually a solid island of garbage in the Pacific, just an area with lots and lots of pieces of plastic. Phew, glad we got that straight.

And: all that plastic is not killing every marine species out there, just some. Thanks, that’s a relief.

Despite such distractions–denial-mongering in search of chump change–the real news rolls on:

(CNN) — A marine expedition of environmentalists has confirmed the bad news it feared — the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” extends even further than previously known.

Organized by two non-profit groups — the Algalita Marine Research Foundation and the 5 Gyres Institute — the expedition is sailing from the Marshall Islands to Japan through a “synthetic soup” of plastic in the North Pacific Ocean on a 72-feet yacht called the Sea Dragon, provided by Pangaea Exploration

[snip]…Leading the expedition is Marcus Eriksen, a former U.S. marine and Ph.D student from University of Southern California. “We’ve been finding lots of micro plastics, all the size of a grain of rice or a small marble,” Eriksen said via satellite phone. “We drag our nets and come up with a small handful, like confetti — 10, 20, 30 fragments at a time. That’s how it’s been, every trawl we’ve done for the last thousand miles.”

Eriksen, who has sailed through all five gyres, said this confirmed for him “that the world’s oceans are ‘plasticized.’ Everywhere you go in the ocean, you’re going to find this plastic waste.”

“Will someone please be sure to mail my carcass to Gawker?”

Bye-Bye Baggie

There are many reasons to love Hawaii, but the latest is that it just became the first state in the Union to pass a ban on plastic bags (this is also one more reason to love the Surfrider Foundation, which pushed hard for the ban).

Plastic, and especially plastic bags, is choking the world’s oceans and waterways. So it is nice to see a very direct solution–a ban–instead of a 5 cent tax or some other half measure which doesn’t really get to the root of the problem. Maybe other states will follow Hawaii’s lead when they discover shopping without plastic bags does not in fact cause a catastrophe.

And, of course, I can’t write about plastic bags without posting my all-time favorite plastic bag video, featuring the genius of Werner Herzog:

Tsunami Delivery

We all know how much stuff humanity has. And when a tsunami hits alot of it floats away. Currently, the Pacific Ocean is acting as a conveyor belt for an enormous tide of man-made junk that is headed from Japan to either fetch up on California beaches, or dwell for eternity in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. I guess it is a good sign (of growing awareness that stuff matters) that the New York Times editorial board is alarmed, saying:

Scientists at the International Pacific Research Center, based at the University of Hawaii at Manoa in Honolulu, created a computer model to predict where the debris would go. Their animation shows a cloud looping across the northern Pacific, past Hawaii, out to the West Coast and back to Hawaii. They say it may make its first landfall this winter in Midway Island, then in Hawaii in 2012, and the West Coast in 2013. In September, a Russian ship sailing to Vladivostok spotted a fishing boat marked “Fukushima,” a TV, a refrigerator and other trash, validating the predictions.

But awareness is really only the first step toward actually doing anything about all the stuff we think we need (the second should be a progressive consumption tax). In the meantime, it will keep piling up across the natural world.

Here’s what the animation model–a real life disaster movie–looks like.

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