Garbage, garbage, everywhere

I found a few pages of a discarded Vancouver Sun the other day on the bus, and was kind of disturbed by an article about “islands of garbage” showing up in the middle of the Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian oceans, at the center of slowly circular ocean currents called gyres.  I did a little bit of research and found some things that were truly frightening.  Dave Semeniuk wrote a post on this last April, but I assume people aren’t in the habit of checking the archives from nine months ago, so here’s an update.  In his post, Dave gave a link to an in-progress video series on the mess in the North Pacific Gyre.  The series has since been completed, and you can check it out here.  If you don’t have time to watch the videos, there’s a short article by the same guy here.  I won’t spoil it all for you, but what you NEED to know is:

-In the North Pacific Gyre, there is an area about the size of Texas that’s basically a soup of bits of plastic and rubber, from microscopic pieces to tires and larger.

-There are five main ocean gyres, and it’s quite possible that all of them have a puddle of garbage in the middle of them.

-Plastic can soak up chemicals called persistent organic pollutants, such as DDT and DDE, resulting in higher levels of these chemicals in the garbage patch.

-Much of the plastic is in small enough fragments that it’s easily ingestible by birds, fish, and other sea creatures, which causes hell for them and anything up the food chain.

-Floating plastic accounts for only about 30% of the plastic in the ocean.  The remaining 70% sinks to the bottom.

Quite horrified by this, I mentioned it to a friend, who responded by filling me in on even more bad news.  Ever heard of “dead zones” in the ocean?  The technical term for the situation is “hypoxia”, and basically, it’s when there’s not enough oxygen in the water to support marine life.  There’s a number of causes, but the main one is excess nitrogen from agricultural runoff.  The nitrogen causes algae blooms, which then die, and the decomposition process sucks the oxygen out of the water.  There’s a giant dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, where the Mississippi drains, but a recent study counts over 400 of these areas around the world.  For a quick introduction to the problem, check out this article from the Washington Post back in April.

There’s possibly an element of sensationalism about all of this, but if these things are as bad as people say they are… well, it’s bloody depressing, and there’s no solution short of a modern miracle.  If there was still any doubt about it, this is some strong evidence that we’ve all made a pretty big mess of our planet.

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John Kastelic is a fourth year music student, majoring in composition and music theory. His main instrument these days is the viola, but likes to make strange noises with anything he can get his hands on. His biggest pet peeves are people taking themselves too seriously and people who don't move to the back of the bus.

5 Responses to “Garbage, garbage, everywhere”

  1. Alia Dharssi

    Wow, this is pretty terrifying and depressing!

    There is no solution short of a modern miracle to deal with what has already been done, but this makes it so evident that we really really need to change our lifestyle. Reading this is definitely making me think about how I might cut down more on my waste.

  2. Dave Semeniuk

    I think the “dead zone” has been somewhat sensationalized, if by its name alone. Anoxic waters are teaming with life – just not the large, cuddly, edible life forms we’re used to. Many unique types of bacteria, capable of “breathing” various kinds of chemicals (nitrogen compounds, sulfur compounds, iron, manganese), call these waters home.

    Many anoxic waters are also completely natural – for example, Saanich Inlet, B.C.

  3. John Kastelic

    Another factor yet to be investigated is the hormone and estrogen-like compounds that leach from a number of common polymer materials. Remember there have been recent cautions about avoiding certain water bottle and baby food containers, pacifiers etc. I recently watched a DVD on nutrition and the author, who seems very well informed, stated that these compounds have a very dominant effect in the human body compared to natural estrogen. The relative factor of twenty thousand times stronger effect was given. Her recommendation is to avoid plastic containers and even aluminum and steel cans which both have internal epoxy coatings.

    So this brings up a new issue – exposure and ingestion of plastic trash by fish and wildlife could exert hormonal effects, even in trace amounts, altering reproduction and growth. Adding to the concern is the way toxins seem to magnify up the food chain to us.

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