Marine debris: it’s bigger (and smaller) than you think
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It is not news that non-biodegradable garbage – mostly plastic – is threatening our oceans. Almost everyone has heard about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, described as a giant mass of garbage the size of Texas, trapped by currents, and located about halfway between Hawaii and California. The description conjures up images of plastic bags, fishing nets, and flip flops intermingled with seaweed and swirling about in a giant floating landfill.
According to the scientific community, this is not how it is.
The so-called “garbage patch” is much more insidious, as it consists of tiny particles of plastic suspended in the water. According to the experts at the marine debris program of NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), particles are small – even microscopic – and the “garbage patch” is not generally visible to the human eye. Furthermore, there is more than one “patch.” Any place in the ocean where there is a system of rotating currents (called a gyre), stuff tends to converge. Besides the most infamous one in the North Pacific, there are also “garbage patches” off the coast of Japan, and in the North Pacific Subtropical Convergence Zone.
Microplastic particles are not exclusively an ocean problem. A few years ago, researchers reported large concentrations of microplastics in the Great Lakes of North America. NOAA and local agencies developed a plan to address the problem and Illinois became the first state in the US to ban microbeads, small plastic particles added to personal care products like soaps and facial washes.
Not much is known about the long term effects of these particles when birds and fish eat them. But we do know quite a bit about what happens when birds and fish eat non-biodegradable garbage while it’s still in bite-sized pieces. And it is not pretty. Sorry for the graphic image, but it’s real. This is a picture from NOAA of a dead Laysan Albatross from the Midway Atoll, where the floating garbage problem is almost overwhelming.
Marine debris is not a new issue. Many governments and organizations around the world have recognized the problem, and have been working on it for years. We know that the ultimate solution lies in stemming the flow of non-biodegradable products at the source, and providing safe and sanitary places for people to throw away what they do discard. It is likely that if you are reading this, you already reduce, reuse, and recycle. You already bring your own bags to the grocery store, you recycle religiously, and you wouldn’t dream of tossing your empty water bottle overboard.
This is not common behavior in other parts of the world.
On separate trips to Belize and Ecuador a few years ago, I was appalled by the garbage on the beaches, and surprised by the indifference of the people who live among it. I saw people casually tossing plastic bags and bottles on the street and out the windows of buses. I saw huge dumping sites along rivers, and coral reefs covered in trash. I saw zero signs of recycling in either country.
I suppose that’s logical: Marine debris started with First World inventions like plastic. We foisted the products onto the Third World, replacing their biodegradable products like burlap sacks with plastic bags, and improving banana crop yields by encasing the growing fruit in plastic “bunch covers” for insect protection. The sight of banana plantations with endless acres of bright blue plastic bags is pretty sobering.
We created this non-biodegradable mess over 50 years ago, and are only now getting really serious about containing it. The rest of the world will catch up.
At one archeological site in Belize, I asked the guide about the lack of recycling facilities in the country. He told me that people were starting to recycle, and that there was a man who came by every week to pick through the garbage at the ruins and pull out the cans. I asked if they had thought about setting up a second separate recycling bin for the cans. I could almost see the lightbulb go off in his head.
So what can we do besides being personally responsible?
We can support organizations that are working to reduce marine debris. One such organization is Project AWARE, a foundation whose mission is “Protecting Our Ocean Planet – One Dive at a Time.” Project AWARE members participate in Dives Against Debris where they clean up local dive areas. Another way of helping is by traveling on tours that include cleanup efforts. An example is a trip called Cleaning the Shores of Spitsbergen offered by International Wildlife Adventures. On this expedition cruise around North Spitsbergen, travelers will have the opportunity to spend part of their time cleaning the beaches, where trash (primarily from the fishing industry) ends up.
We can make a difference when we travel. I like to think that when I go back to that archeological site in Belize, there will be a blue recycling can next to the trash can.