A mass of plastic in the Pacific Ocean, increasing tenfold each decade since 1945, is now the size of Texas and killing everything in its wake.
Each hour North Americans consume and discard about 2.75 million plastic water and soda bottles; that’s 24 billion a year. Some of those bottles are now in the oceans.
Globally, 100 million tons of plastic are generated each year and at least 10 per cent of that is finding its way into the sea. The United Nations Environmental Program now estimates that there are 46,000 floating pieces of plastic for every square mile of ocean. Some of that trash circulating the globe is 95 feet deep.
Worldwide, each year 250 billion pounds of small plastic pellets called nurdles — the feedstock for all disposable plastics are shipped and billions are spilled during transfer in and out of railroad cars. Those spilled nurdles are ending up in gutters and drains and eventually carried into the ocean. And some are even washing up on the shores of Antarctica.
In just three days in 2006 a quarter of billion nurdles washed down the Los Angeles and San Gabriel Rivers into the Pacific.
The U.S. produces about 15 billion pounds of plastic each year and only 1 per cent of it is recycled. As a matter of fact, the average American uses 223 pounds of plastic each year and by 2011 it’s projected to be as high as 326 pounds per annum.
Plastic is a petroleum by-product and the most commonly produced resin in North America includes: polyethylene, polypropylene and polystyrene.
Long chain molecules that make up plastic are durable and long lasting. In the ocean they may take 500 years to break down. Sunlight photo-degrades plastic breaking it into smaller and smaller pieces. Yet, even a single molecule of plastic is indigestible by any known organism
At least 80 per cent of the plastic in the ocean originated from the land. Thousands of cargo containers fall overboard in stormy seas each year. In 2002, 33,000 blue-and-white Nike basketball shoes were spilled off the coast of Washington.
Plastic in the ocean acts like sponges attracting neuron-toxins like mercury and pyrethroids insecticides, carcinogens such as PCBs, DDT and PBDE (the backbone of flame retardants), and man-made hormones like progesterone and estrogen that at high levels induce both male and female reproductive parts on a single animal.
Each year a million sea birds and 100,000 sharks, turtles, dolphins and whales die from eating plastic.
Nurdles resemble fish eggs or roe and tuna and salmon feed on them indiscriminately. Around 2.5 billion humans eat fish regularly. Plastic and other man-made toxins are polluting the global food chain and it’s escalating at an unprecedented rate.
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is actually comprised of two enormous masses of ever-growing garbage. The Eastern Garbage Patch floats between Hawaii and California. The Western Garbage Patch extends east of Japan to the western archipelago of the Hawaiian Islands. A narrow 6,000-mile long current called the Subtropical Convergence Zone connects the patches.
The massive clockwise North Pacific Gyre is carrying plastic that is over 50 years old. Last year, plastic found in the stomach of an albatross had a serial number traced to a World War II seaplane shot down just south of Japan in 1944 and identified over 60 years later off the West Coast of the U.S.
Currently, there is six times more plastic than plankton floating in the middle of the Pacific.
The North Pacific Gyre, its ocean currents and winds have essentially become a giant toilet bowl that regularly disgorges metres of plastic onto Hawaii’s Big Island. Kamilo Beach is often covered in plastic lighters, toothbrushes, water bottles, pens, nurdles, baby bottles, cell phones and plastic bags. About a half trillion plastic bags are manufactured each year around the globe.
Oceanographers and conservation biologists believe the only way to contend with the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is to slow the amount of plastic flowing from the land to the sea.
Buy six organic cotton shopping bags. Use them instead of supermarket plastic bags. Make it a habit to return those bags to the trunk of your car after unpacking groceries.
Re-use your plastic water bottles. If you can refill one bottle for a day then why not attempt it for a week.
Thermal conversion landfills will soon render all landfill trash neutral and prevent landfills from contaminating ground water and haphazardly leaking the potent greenhouse gas methane into the atmosphere.
In the meantime, each of us must deliberately reduce the amount of trash we generate, and in particular the quantity of disposable plastic that are carelessly being discarded — because the ocean and all of its life forms are suffocating.
Dr. Reese Halter is an Los Angeles-based motivational speaker and founder of the international conservation institute Global Forest Science. He can be contacted through www.DrReese.com.