Quantcast

We’re Drowning in Seas of Plastic

The fossil fuel era must end, or it will spell humanity's end. The threat isn't just from pollution and accelerating climate change. Rapid, wasteful exploitation of these valuable resources has also led to a world choked in plastic. Almost all plastics are made from fossil fuels, often by the same companies that produce oil and gas.


Our profligate use of plastics has created swirling masses in ocean gyres. It's worse than once thought. New research concludes that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is 16 times larger than previously estimated, with 79,000 tonnes of plastic churning through 1.6 million square kilometers of the North Pacific. That's larger than the area of Quebec—and it continues to grow! Researchers say if we don't clean up our act, the oceans will have more plastics by weight than fish by 2050.

The Ocean Cleanup Foundation commissioned the study, published in Nature, based on a 2015 expedition using 30 vessels and a C-130 Hercules airplane to look at the eastern part of the patch.

According to a CBC article, researchers estimate that the patch holds 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic, much of it broken down into microplastics less than half a centimeter in diameter. They also found "plastic bottles, containers, packaging straps, lids, ropes and fishing nets," some dating from the late 1970s and into the '80s and '90s, and large amount of debris from the 2011 tsunami in Fukushima, Japan.

When plastics break down into smaller pieces, they're more difficult to clean up, and marine animals often ingest the pieces, which is killing them in ever-increasing numbers. Larger pieces can entangle marine animals, and bigger animals often ingest those, too.

The North Pacific patch isn't unique. Debris accumulates wherever wind and ocean conditions and Earth's rotation create ocean gyres, including the North Pacific, North Atlantic, South Pacific, South Atlantic and Indian Ocean. There's also one in the Arctic Ocean, although it isn't a gyre, but an "accumulation zone," where water from warmer areas sinks as it cools.

As the 5 Gyres organization points out, plastics are everywhere, not just in the gyres. It says the idea of a floating island of garbage is a misconception: "In the ocean, plastic is less like an island, and more like smog."

Although some of the plastic comes from ships, most is washed from land into the seas via runoff, rivers and wind.

Scientists are conducting research into ways of cleaning up some ocean plastic, but say the only way to adequately address the problem is to stop it at its source. Marcus Eriksen, 5 Gyres co-founder and research director, told CBC that governments need to implement policies to get manufacturers to clean up their acts, "And make smarter products and think of the full life cycle; stop making something that, when it becomes waste, becomes a nightmare for everyone."

Fossil fuels and the products derived from them have made life easier, but at what cost? We've only been using plastics since the 1950s, and our excessive fossil fuel use is also a relatively recent phenomenon. Putting plastics in the recycling bin isn't the only answer either. Low fossil fuel prices and lack of profitable markets for recycled materials means a lot of plastic doesn't get recycled, and it doesn't biodegrade.

We don't have to stop using fossil fuels and producing fossil-fuel-derived plastics overnight, but we can't continue to regard the industry as the backbone of our economies and ways of life, and we must stop being so wasteful.

As individuals, we can help reduce the amounts of plastic waste in the oceans and on land by eschewing single-use items like plastic bags, drink containers, straws and excessively packaged items; by avoiding clothing made with plastic microfibers and products containing microbeads; and by choosing reusable containers or disposables made from other materials, such as aluminum, that are more likely to be recycled. Be wary of compostable plastics. Although made from plant materials, they require large industrial facilities to break them down.

The real solution is to buy less stuff in the first place, reduce waste, conserve energy and shift to cleaner, renewable power sources and product materials. It's past time to take pollution, climate change and waste seriously.

Show Comments ()

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

A metal fence marked with the U.S. Border Patrol sign prevents people to get close to the barbed/concertina wire covering the U.S./Mexico border fence, in Nogales, Arizona, on Feb. 9. ARIANA DREHSLER / AFP / Getty Images

President Donald Trump issued the first veto of his presidency Friday, overturning Congress' vote to block his national emergency declaration to fund a border wall that environmental advocates say would put 93 endangered species at risk. However, the president's decision came the same day as an in-depth report from UPI revealing how razor wire placed at the border in the last four months already threatens wildlife.

Read More Show Less
Guillermo Murcia / Moment / Getty Images

By Ansley Hill

Vitamin D is an essential nutrient that your body needs for many vital processes, including building and maintaining strong bones.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
D'Bone Collector Museum head Darrell Blatchley shows plastic found inside the stomach of a Cuvier's beaked whale in the Philippines this weekend. - / AFP / Getty Images

Yet another whale has died after ingesting plastic bags. A young male Cuvier's beaked whale was found washed up in Mabini, Compostela Valley in the Philippines Friday, CNN reported. When scientists from the D' Bone Collector Museum in Davao investigated the dead whale, they found it had died of "dehydration and starvation" after swallowing plastic bags―40 kilograms (approximately 88 pounds) worth of them!

Read More Show Less
Pexels

By Jeff Turrentine

"Be careful what you wish for; you just might get it." This is something that everybody has to learn at some point. Lately, the lesson has hit home for a group of American automakers.

Read More Show Less
Art direction: Georgie Johnson. Illustrations: Freya Morgan

By Joe Sandler Clarke

"Don't expect us to continue buying European products," Malaysia's former plantations minister Mah Siew Keong told reporters in January last year. His comments came just after he had accused the EU of "practising a form of crop apartheid."

A few months later Luhut Pandjaitan, an Indonesian government minister close to President Joko 'Jokowi' Widodo, warned his country would retaliate if it was "cornered" by the EU.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
Torres and his parents walk along the Rio Grande. Luis Torres / Earthjustice

By Luis Torres

For some people who live along the U.S.-Mexico border, President Trump's attempt to declare a national emergency and extend the border wall is worse than a wasteful, unconstitutional stunt. It's an attack on their way of life that threatens to desecrate their loved ones' graves.

Read More Show Less
Flooding at the Platte River south of Fremont, Nebraska. Gov. Pete Ricketts

Flooding caused by last week's bomb cyclone storm has broken records in 17 places across the state of Nebraska, CNN reported Sunday. Around nine million people in 14 states along the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers were under a flood watch, CNN meteorologist Karen Maginnis said.

Read More Show Less
A car destroyed by Cyclone Idai in Beira, Mozambique. ADRIEN BARBIER / AFP / Getty Images

At least 150 people have died in a cyclone that devastated parts of Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Malawi over the weekend, The Associated Press reported Sunday. Cyclone Idai has affected more than 1.5 million people since it hit Mozambique's port city of Beira late Thursday, then traveled west to Zimbabwe and Malawi. Hundreds are still missing and tens of thousands are without access to roads or telephones.

"I think this is the biggest natural disaster Mozambique has ever faced. Everything is destroyed. Our priority now is to save human lives," Mozambique's Environment Minister Celso Correia said, as AFP reported.

Read More Show Less