01 November 2011

Cleaning the Oceans from Plastic - Mission Impossible?

Far from our eyes islands have been forming in the oceans - plastic islands floating  along the oceanic gyres, luring fish and birds with their bright colors. We have been killing innocent animals with each plastic bottle cap that has not landed safely in the trash bin. And all the floating colorful plastic bits of civilization are at the core of a very modern and ironic question - is cleaning the oceans from plastic possible at all?

Debris from the 2011 Japan earthquake and tsunami
Much has been said recently about the enormous floating island of debris from the March earthquake and tsunami in Japan that is about to hit Hawaii and the West Coast of the U.S. Some claim that it comprises of anywhere between 5 and 20 million tons of houses, boats, cars, tractors, even human bodies.

Several months ago, researchers from University of Hawaii came up with a simulation model showing part of the vicious circle the debris will make around the North Pacific - floating past Hawaii by about mid 2012 and reaching the US shores by 2013 before heading back to Asia. In fact, if the lighter items are not blown ashore by winds or get caught up in another oceanic gyre, they will continue to drift in the North Pacific loop and complete the circle in about six years.

Simulation of the trajectory of debris from the 2011 Japan tsunami and earthquake. University of Hawaii Mānoa International Pacific Research Center

Although the vast amount of debris was washed into the ocean before the release of radioactive water from the destroyed power plants it is possible that some of them are in fact contaminated with radioactive material.

Of course, a great part of the debris is plastic, which will increase tremendously the already high level of pollution of the ocean. But here is where I am starting to look perplexed - why is all the media getting so animated about the harmful plastic from the Japanese tragedy when the amount of tsunami debris, although massive, is a mere nothing comparing to the plastic trash that is dumped into oceans on a regular basis!

I read opinions that Japan should take care of the trash "their" earthquake produced and I assume it is simply easier for everyone to find the one to blame and just pour the blames. How about the anonymous polluters thanks to whom more than 1 million seabirds, 100000 mammals and sea turtles are dying each and every year?

According to a report by the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy  released 7 years ago roughly about 20% of the plastic in the oceans comes from ships or offshore platforms; the rest is blown, washed off the land or simply thrown away.

Marine debris found in the gastrointestinal content of a juvenile green turtle accidentally captured in Bahía Samborombón, Argentina. Photo: Victoria González Carman

Plastic not only damages marine animals habitats but it also kills the ones that eat it or get tangled in it and drown. Plastic bags, colorful bottle caps and polystyrene foam coffee cups are often found in the stomachs of dead sea lions, dolphins, sea turtles and other sea animals. 

Bill Macdonald, vice president of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, a Long Beach, California-based nonprofit environmental organization says:
"In the sea, big pieces of plastic look like jellyfish or squid, while small pieces look like fish eggs. I have seen albatross parents fly huge distances to feed their young a deadly diet of plastic bottle caps, lighters and light sticks.
The sheer volumes of plastic in oceans are staggering. In recent years Algalita researchers have sampled a huge area in the middle of the North Pacific, and found six pounds of plastic for every pound of algae."

New trash discoveries in the ocean
Even before the tsunami, the World Ocean was the collective bin for the trash of the world - flowing in from rivers, washed off beaches, neglected from oil and gas platforms or from fishing, tourist, and merchant boats. For many years now marine debris has become a serious problem for marine ecosystems, fisheries, and shipping.

According to Nikolai Maximenko at the University of Hawaii, the trash which does not degrade, is not washed off on shores, does not end up at the ocean's bottom or in the animals stomachs is directed by ocean currents and gyres to five major regions in the World Ocean, which have turned into “garbage patches”: The so-called Great Pacific Garbage Patch, floating between Hawaii and California has been growing since the 1950s. Its weight is estimated to about 4 million tons and 80% of it is plastic. There is another one, north of the Caribbean which is similar in volume to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and is reportedly taken care of (for now). The South Atlantic, South Indian Ocean, and South Pacific patches have just been found.

Map source: NASA

At this point no one sees it possible to clean this whole mess. On the contrary, there are predictions that it will only get bigger thanks to our throw-away culture, addicted to plastic. To quote Miriam Goldstein of The Oyster's Garter:
"... [T]he trash gyre would be very, very hard to clean up. The plastic is so small, and so scattered, that it would take high-intensity trawling similar to that for shrimp. And shrimp trawling kills 10 pounds of non-targeted life (sharks, turtles, fish, you name it) for every pound of shrimp gathered... The mortality caused by trying to remove all the trash in the gyre would probably be similar. We’re just going to have to live with it and try to prevent it from getting any bigger."
There is something the majority of people simply don't get and it is this: Most plastics do not biodegrade. Unless removed, they will remain in the sea for hundreds of years, breaking up into ever-smaller particles. Recently British scientists discovered that microscopic pieces of plastic can be found everywhere in the oceans, even inside plankton, the keystone of the marine food chain.

The Washing Machine Problem
Yes, you and your washing machine could be contributing to the devastating pollution of the World Ocean. According to a recent report published in ACS' journal Environmental Science & Technology there is increased accumulation of microplastic debris in the oceans coming from the wastewater of washing machines! The bits of polyester and acrylic smaller than pin heads go into the bodies of sea animals and could be transferred to people who eat fish. The microplastic can stay into their organisms for months.

During a wash cycle more than 1,900 fibers can rinse off of a single garment and these are the exact same microplastic debris found in the sea. Maybe it is about time we consider the clothes we are wearing and hopefully there will be further research which will lead to developing methods for reducing the release of microplastic in wastewater.

In the meantime, there are simple things we can all turn into habits in order to help reduce the ocean pollution:
  • Reduce, reuse and recycle as much as possible.
  • Whenever you shop choose recyclable products.
  • Don't use plastic bags, except if they are biodegradable.
  • Think about where you are throwing your trash, even the smallest bit. It might end up in your stomach.
  • When you think of trash, try to think beyond your trash bin - plastic doesn't leave your life after you throw it away.
  • Take real action and collect the trash that you see on the street. One item a day makes 365 for a year, times 7 billion... you can do the math.
  • Educate your children about recycling.
  • Pass this message on!

With information from NOAA, University of Hawaii, Deep Sea News.