Thursday, November 5, 2009

Great Pacific Garbage Patch

As on        As one stands on the beach and looks out onto the horizon, one would expect to see beautiful blue water stretching on forever. Also one might see some beautiful seabirds flying in the air or other marine animals frolicking in the water. In recent years, it has become more and more likely that one will see Styrofoam blocks and plastic bottles. The animals are also starting to be killed off by this trash. This is because of our increasing use of plastic and the improper disposal of it. Much of this trash has accumulated in what has come to be known as the "Great Pacific Garbage Patch"; it was discovered in the mid-1990s. These islands of trash are 1,000 miles west off the coast of California and east off the coast of Japan. If something is not done about this problem, our whole world will suffer. This is why I believe it is up to the government to continue to pass environmental regulations.

                         In the northern Pacific Ocean, there is a clockwise spiral of water currents created by a high-pressure system of air currents called the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre. Two giant garbage patches have started to form; they are collectively called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. According to some estimates, it is about twice the size of Texas; it is the world's largest landfill. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch has been largely ignored because of its remote location, but in the mid-1990s, it was brought to the public's attention by sailor and ocean researcher, Charles Moore.

                         Over the years, the plastic refuse in the patch has been broken down into tiny pieces of plastic confetti. When the plastic breaks down, it can release potentially toxic chemicals into the ocean. These chemicals can make it to humans through fish and other seafood that we eat. Recently, two ships from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California-San Diego and Ocean Voyages Institute embarked on a three-week expedition to study the patch and how else the plastic affects the ecosystem. These ships took samples of the water frequently as they neared the garbage patch and found the tiny plastic in every one. There has already been a study in Japan that noticed a correlation between the amount of toxins from plastics in the body and miscarrying or not being able to get pregnant.

                        Trash causes a whole host of problems in the world's oceans. One of them is it kills wildlife through entanglement. Besides killing wildlife, plastic and other trash can wash up on beaches, damage boat equipment, discourage swimming and harm fisheries. Trash washing up on beaches is a problem all over the world, but especially for the islands near the gyre. The Hawaiian Islands are hit particularly hard. On some beaches, there are walls of trash up to ten feet high.

                The accumulation of trash has been going on for many years and is most likely due to trash being washed down drains or into rivers, in areas like Japan and the coast of California as well as trash being dumped from ocean-going ships. Since almost 80 percent of trash in the ocean is dumped from land, we need to encourage recycling and strongly enforce international treaties forbidding dumping into the ocean. Reducing the use of plastic or using more eco-friendly plastics is also a solution to the problem of garbage patches. Bisphenol A is used to create a plastic called polycarbonate and seven billion pounds are produced every year, even though this plastic is non-recyclable. This needs to be fixed. The creation of storm drains that catch plastic debris is another solution. We must control waste and its disposal on land, because it will be almost impossible to completely clean the ocean of the trash. Simply filtering the water will harm an already weakened ecosystem by removing phytoplankton and other small marine life. It might be possible to collect some of the bigger items, but it isn't possible to clean an area of ocean the size of the continental U.S. and extends about 100 feet below the surface. We must work in the future to fix this gargantuan problem.

            There is, of course, another side to this argument. Some people write this problem off as an urban myth, even with all this evidence staring us in the face. Many people find that since much of the trash is below the surface or too small to see it is not as important as some of our other world problems. This problem will not go away if we continue to ignore it. We must find a solution to the problem of marine trash before it is too late.

            In the Pacific Ocean, there are up to six pounds of marine litter for every pound of plankton. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a very visual representation of the human impact on the marine environment. The public's attention needs to be refocused back to this issue; if this doesn't happen, the consequences may be devastating.


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