The North Pacific Trash Gyre
My nine-year-old freaked out yesterday when he read an email a local artist sent out about The North Pacific Trash Gyre, also known as Plastic Soup and The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, two huge masses in the Pacific Ocean made up of floating plastic. This plastic debris ranges from nurdles (factory-ready plastic the size of grains of sand that later becomes windborne) to tires, plastic bags and bottles, fishnets, etc. Thinner areas of the “Gyre” are 3-6 feet deep, while the thickest areas can reach 60 feet deep. Can you imagine 60 feet deep of plastic bits swirling around in the ocean? Too small to photograph, especially underwater (and frequently transparent), this is nevertheless a huge and disturbing problem. In the salt water, the plastic attracts oil-based carcinogens and other toxic chemicals, and fish lay their eggs in the Gyre as they do in seaweed and other floating debris. Other fish eat the eggs and the plastic they’re resting upon, and become contaminated; this contamination moves up to the top of the food chain and eventually you and I eat it. Birds also eat the fish eggs and ingest the plastic, and eventually die from rupturing organs especially when they eat things like toothbrushes and syringes.
When I told a friend about the trash vortex and how it works, she asked (in jest, I hope) why we even bother trying when it’s so obvious that humans are bent on destroying the world. The good news is that, even with what seems to be such an insurmountable problem, Michael (the artist neighbor person) says that scientists say that if we stop adding to the problem the Gyres will eventually go away. The plastics cast off and arrive on beaches at a rate such that, if we were to stop adding to it today, they would disappear within twenty years. I haven't found any evidence of that, but I choose to believe him because it's such an encouraging thought and gives us all incentive to actually work to make a difference. Isn’t it an amazing idea, that within twenty years we could actually solve such a huge and disturbing problem? To bring it around to Earth Day, here’s what each and every one of us can do:
Practice the Three Rs in order of priority:
REDUCE. Stop buying things if they have huge amounts of plastic packaging. If there’s an item you love that has too much packaging, let the manufacturer know – they do respond, and they are listening. If one person stops buying widgets because of overpackaging and tells them so they might ignore it, but if a hundred, a thousand, ten thousand do so, they will listen. Buy your fruits and vegetables without plastic bags whenever possible (making your own organic cloth bags is a wonderful way to keep your foods separate and use fewer plastics). There’s no law that says two lemons need their own bag! If you get takeout food, use your own container instead of getting a disposable from the restaurant. And there's a movement afoot to leave excess packaging at the store ... I wonder what would happen if everyone did that!
When you have to use a plastic bag, make sure to REUSE it. Make or buy reusable shopping bags that always go with you anytime you might buy anything – we have quite a few canvas ones that live in our car or by the door (to be taken to the car when we go outside) and I have a tradeshow giveaway chico bag that I keep in my purse for impulse purchases. It hardly takes up any space and has saved me many times. If you eat foods like sour cream, green chile, jarred spaghetti sauce, and the like, those containers can be incredibly useful for storing food, sewing notions, office supplies, paints, and more. Let the kids play with them in the tub or the sandbox, start seedlings in them, use the jars for taking your lunch to work (they’re microwaveable, too), ... there are so many ways to reuse, and so very few excuses to throw away. Especially now that we know where the plastics end up, eek!
Last on that spectrum, but still incredibly important, RECYCLE. Plastic downcycles – it doesn’t become the same thing again, it becomes something lower on the usability spectrum. Right now that’s mainly building materials like decking (Trex and the like). It’s still incredibly crucial to recycle everything plastic that you can, if only to keep plastics out of the Gyre – and now that we have that visual, my kids really understand why I’m so fanatical about this. Because some recycling centers throw out the entire load if there’s contaminated plastic in it, you’ll want to visually clean the items; I do that by collecting “grey water” in a bowl in the sink (when we wash our hands, veggies, etc) and using that to clean recyclables. Some people spray a bit of eco-friendly household cleaner or put a drop of essential oil in the containers while it’s waiting to go outside, to reduce any odor. (As a sidenote, if like us you live in a rattlesnake-prone area you might not want to have your recycling right outside your front door, as last summer we ended up with a rattlesnake coiled up among our cans, in search of mice looking for stray bits of food . Thank goodness for our rattlesnake tongs, which I recommend often and enthusiastically!)
As a final note: Ask manufacturers and stores where you shop to investigate and begin using Cradle to Cradle plastics. These plastics are agri-based, often made from corn stalks and waste material and in a set amount of time (usually 12-24 months) become fertilizer. Learn more about C2C here. A couple more easy bits of activism: Ask restaurants where you get take-out to use compostable dishes and silverware, and encourage your towns to implement a plastic bag tax.
As I said above, much of the information in this post came from Michael Lancaster, a local artist, whose email sparked a very interesting conversation in our household and this blog post. Find him and his work here.
Learn more about Algalita, the main organization researching the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and the issue of marine debris in general, here, and follow along with their Oceanographic Research Vessel Team's blog posts too. They also have a Ship To Shore Education Program that I can see we're going to have to incorporate into our discussions at home. (And no, the pictures today weren't of the Pacific Gyre, as it is difficult to photograph like I said above; instead I choose pictures of children enjoying the beach, which all people should be able to do.)
So, it's not an incredibly upbeat blog post today, except for the fact that I truly believe we all can and will make a difference here. These aren't huge changes we need to make, just little ones that will add up. Let's all start today, please.