Its been a good 50 years since the world has gone full bore into spewing out plastic into the environment we share, and its getting harder and harder to ignore the destruction this toxic substance is having on the biosphere and our health.
Plastic, as we all famously know, doesn’t biodegrade in the environment, and its just about one of the only non-degradable source of building materials humans use that nature is not equipped to deal with.
I recall as a boy, hiking in the mountains and finding signs of human activity (old trash), and would check them out for their antiquity; tin and aluminum cans, old bottles, wooden boxes and canvas scraps, the iron tools and wires, the automobiles and wagons, all rotting back to their natural state once abandoned by human care.
But plastic doesn’t revert back to oil. Nope, it just sits there, and depending upon the climate and UV exposure, and its internal ingredients, it either cracks down to smaller pieces, or leaches toxins into the soil, or if nature’s lucky, a fire comes and melts it into smoke.
So durable is it, I read during the economic crisis that in Sweden, they’re mining their garbage dumps for the good stuff, the purer thicker plastics of the mid century, to melt down and use as a source of oil. But as anyone who has been to the beach can tell you, not all trash ends up in the dump or recycling bin. Far too much of it ends up in our seas, wrecking havoc on the marine eco systems away from human eyes.
Recently, scientists loaded their ships with a record harvest off the coast of Hawaii, but not of fish or corals. This deadliest catch was garbage.
The crew of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) ship Oscar Elton Sette collected 50 metric tons of marine debris from the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument off the northwestern Hawaiian Islands, an effort that has been ongoing since 1996 to keep the shallow coral reef environment clean and living.
Kyle Koyanagi, the chief scientist for the mission, said "What surprises us is that after many years of marine debris removal in Papahanaumokuakea and more than 700 metric tons of debris later, we are still collecting a significant amount of derelict fishing gear from the shallow coral reefs and shorelines. The ship was at maximum capacity and we did not have any space for more debris."
These NOAA ships have been going out every year since 1996 and this year worked on cleaning up the coastal shores of the northern section of the Hawaiian Islands; Kure Atoll, Midway Atoll, Pearl Atoll, Hermes Atoll, Lisianski Island and Laysan Island.
Dominating the marine junk pile was the discarded fishing gear and plastic debris from the Midway Atoll, accounting for half the trash. Although this summer the researchers found no evidence of the debris originating from the tsunami in Japan, that’s just because the ocean is a big place. That debris is already littering the Pacific Northwest’s shorelines and has included a Harley Davidson motorcycle and an enormous floating dock covered with marine organisms.
Lots of this garbage drifts through the public’s mind with images of bird skeletons full of cheap lighters and bottle caps, and animals trapped in abandon fishing nets and plastic can holders. An autopsy of a beached whale revealed a sad trend; the stomachs of these giant gentle ocean filter feeders are bloated with plastic garbage, like many land animals feeding on plastic trash bags in Africa.
Even more worrisome for humans, is the fact that once these plastics have photo-degraded down to the molecule sized particles, they then enter the food chain. Plankton, with their voracious appetites, eat them up, and are in turn eaten, that jelly fish that is then eaten by a tuna ends up on our plates full of these plastic molecules which work as pseudo hormones on the body and have been shown to cause miscarriages and even the rise in suicides in Asian cities.
And while it’s good that this shameful harvest of garbage has been pulled from the ocean to be put to use as fuel for electricity generation, much more needs to be done. Hawaii has taken the lead with their Nets-to Energy program that collects broken-down nets, burning them as fuel to power energy creating steam turbines, but much more needs to be done to end this plastic scourge which has cheapened our life and threatens the biosphere that our lives depend on.
Photos courtesy of NOAA.