Thinking about this upcoming weekend made the reflect on something I've been reading up on lately, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and the under-reported problem of plastics in the ocean.
Thus inspired, I thought for today's post I should write a photo essay* about a problem near to my heart (and my home!) - a problem that you, dear reader, should probably know a thing or two about.
*All photos are mine unless otherwise stated.
Plastics are Forever
Long ago when Hypercolor shirts and Koosh Balls were flying off the shelves, when I was but a young and innocent thing watching nature documentaries and dreaming of travelling the world, there was a cartoon that featured dancing dinosaurs singing, "Recycle, reduce, reuse, and close the loop! We can close the loop!" It popped up every now and then between TV commercials, lodging itself forever into my subconscious.
Recently I went looking for it out of curiosity. Thank you, Internet - I found it, and learned that it was part of an awareness campaign put on by California's Department of Recycling. It only aired locally, I guess, which means that most of the nation hasn't had this little earbug ("We can close the loop!") stuck in their head for the past twenty years.
Here it is. You've been forewarned:
Gosh, what a flashback. (Don't worry, I have no idea what the end means either.) That was, I suppose, my first introduction to the concept of the three R's. It aired at a time when there were no recycling facilities anywhere close to my hometown, not counting the 5 cents you could get for returned bottles. I remember looking at the little arrow symbol on the bottom of plastic and thinking, "Huh," before throwing it away. I didn't have an alternative. But the idea of "Recycle, Reduce, Reuse" stuck, if nothing else.
Fun little dinosaur ditties are a great introduction to pressing issues like overconsumption and pollution. (Much better than the alternative, "Hey kid, look at this picture of a thousand dead sea turtles!") Still, some things have to be seen first-hand before they hit home.
The first time I participated in my town's twice-annual beach cleanup, I was shocked by the amount of garbage I picked up. Detergent bottles, food wrappers, cigarette lighters, and countless unidentifiable chunks of plastic. "Where does it all come from?" I wondered. "Are the people in my area really that trashy?"
Jump forward many years, and I'm living on the Galapagos, researching wildlife. My island was at the farthest end of the archipelago, 600 miles from mainland South America, pretty much as far from civilization as a person can get. Yet it never ceased to amaze me what sorts of things washed up on the beach.
A bucket lid, bottle, broken chunks of plastic, and two albatrosses going into their courtship ritual.
It was exactly the same as back home in Oregon, but far more inexplicable. Nylon rope, a shoe, potato chip bags, PVC pipe, torn nets...how far did these things have to travel to get here? Even in the middle of nowhere, so isolated, I felt...invaded, like each piece of trash represented the person who last touched it, their ghost lingering alongside it, haunting one of the last truly wild places on earth.
A sea lion pup takes a nap inside an old tire. Photo courtesy my friend Tiff.
Plastic takes a long time to degrade even under the best conditions, but once it hits the water, that process is halted. Plastics in the ocean never truly go away. Eventually they break down into polymers, smaller and smaller bits of "microplastic" that begin to look something like this:
Microplastics. Photo courtesy C-MORE.
In 2008, C-MORE (The Center for Microbial Oceanography: Research & Education, based in Hawaii) took an expedition to study the infamous stretch of ocean called "The Great Pacific Garbage Patch," or the North Pacific Gyre. A gyre is an area where wind and currents converge to form giant, slow-moving whirlpools - there are five of them worldwide.
The five gyres. Photo courtesy Wikipedia Commons.
Anything in the ocean that can't move under its own power eventually collects in one of the gyres. Now if you hear "Great Pacific Garbage Patch," you might, like me, be envisioning floating garbage so thick you can walk across it. Not so, the C-MORE expedition found. There's not much visible trash, but pull up a sample of water from the gyre and what you find is a thick soup of tiny microplastics drawn together from the farthest reaches of the ocean.
Until my time on the Galapagos, I never understood the true importance - and fragility - of the ocean. It seems like a mighty thing, doesn't it? Off the coast of my hometown the waves crash down in 40-foot thunderclaps, ripping boulders from the jetty and sweeping away people foolish enough to turn their backs on it. The ocean seems as infinite, impassive, and untouchable as the distant stars.
But when I lived on the island, I depended on it for everything. The only other water I had was precious drinking water stored in closed 50-gallon drums, so it was to the ocean that I went to bathe, wash my clothes, clean my dishes, and even get water for cooking. When the tide was out I could do nothing but wait. Sometimes, for reasons I still don't understand, the water returned as a foul raging current of dirt and waste, scourging the shoreline clean. There were times I was swimming when this current came, suddenly finding myself surrounded by feathers, sticks, carcasses, and brown floating objects I dared not identify. When the water was like this, it was the same as a low tide - useless.
The ocean is the dishwasher, the washing machine, the bathtub of the world. When it works right, it takes the worst of our waste and turns it back into usable minerals and nutrients. But if it gets dirty, what washes the washing machine? Hmm.
Where I lived, I loved watching the gannet chicks in the nearby seabird colony. They were incredibly curious, and would play with anything they could reach.
A feather makes a good toy.
Yes, anything, even if they had no clue what it was.
A stick? A feather? Close enough!
As adults, man-made objects continue to confuse them. They'll eat bits of trash, assuming it's food, and slowly starve themselves (or their chicks) as they fill up with indigestible plastic.
Photo by Chris Jordan, a photographer who travelled to Midway Island to document the death of plastic-filled albatrosses. Visit his site to see more.
Plastic works into the food chain in more insidious ways, too. If all of the plastic in the ocean did consist of giant, original-sized pieces, we might make some progress in gradually fishing it out. But because it breaks down into such small pieces, collecting it means collecting everything else along with it, including the plankton that form the base of the food chain. The smallest particles of microplastic are ingested by tiny zooplankton, who themselves are eaten by small fish and shrimp.
How much plastic is inside this shrimp?
The plastic travels through the food chain, unchanged, from shrimp to salmon, from herring to shark, back into the water, through barnacles, through whales, until some of it finally ends up here:
Russian roulette, seafood style.
Eating microplastics by themselves might not be such a bad thing, as long as they don't jam up your plumbing - I don't know, I haven't chewed on my crayons lately - but according to the NOAA Marine Debris Program, plastic, being a petroleum product, soaks up oil-based chemicals in the water like DDT, PCBs, pesticides, and other persistent organic pollutants (POPs).
No one knows for sure how much of these chemicals our bodies absorb when we eat microplastic-laden seafood, but studies are increasingly revealing their possible effects - cancer, infertility, a weakened immune system, developmental disabilities...the list goes on. In my neck of the woods, I hear stories of young orcas that wash up dead on the shores, their bodies so contaminated with POPs that they have to be handled like toxic waste. The POPs come to them through their mother's milk. (The mothers, with more body mass, can handle larger concentrations of POPs.) So what are these chemicals doing to us?
We've given the ocean, the great washing machine of the planet, the reverse Midas touch. It's poisoning whatever it contacts, including us.
Plastic fish in a plastic sea.
Go Team Us!
Now might be a good time to go back and watch the dancing dinosaurs again. Isn't pollution depressing? Tell me about it. Tell anyone who's worked as a field biologist. It's a constant cycle of fighting, falling down, and getting back up for one more fight. But we fight to protect the things we love.
So what can we do about the gigantic plastic soup formerly known as our ocean? Well, everyone's got their own strengths, their own unique contribution they can make to the problem.
Mine is teaching. I've been doing it for this entire post...or trying to, at least.
Part of the trouble is that many people simply haven't heard about microplastics or POPs or the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Part of the trouble is that those who know don't care. That's where I like to jump in.
Education simply means knowing. Science is just that - from the Latin scire, "to know." If you know something, you begin to understand it. If you understand it, you begin to love it. If you love it, you will want to protect it. Maybe even fight to protect it.
So I try to share my love for the ocean with as many people as I can. I get excited when I see a piece of bull kelp, show people how to look for the delicate dancing legs of barnacles, teach them the difference between a sea lion and a seal. During my time working as an outdoor educator on a sailing ship, I got to do this all the time. There is nothing, nothing, like hearing a tough, angry inner-city kid suddenly say, "Oh man, look at those salmon jumping! Wow, you guys! Wow!"
Marine Biology - Dig It!
One of the lessons I helped design and lead was the Watershed Class. "Where's your watershed?" I'd ask. "Is it the building in your yard where you store all your water?" (Insert hearty belly laugh.) Actually, few kids even knew what a watershed was, so we'd go over the map, starting with the smallest creek and working our way up to the biggest river, the Columbia, which drains a vast part of North America.
"Is that the biggest watershed you can find?" I would ask. Sure, yeah, said the kids...and then I pointed out that the Pacific drains our watershed too. In truth, we all live in the same watershed. The ocean is downstream of everything.
The Watershed Class.
The funky little model that I used to illustrate this point was a cooking pan with wads of tinfoil covered with a plastic bag, a mini-watershed. (A good example of "reusing" trash, yay!) The water of the "ocean" started clean, then we started squirting drops of pollutants (in fact just coffee, mud, or food coloring) into different areas of the watershed, watching as they oozed down and gradually turned the "ocean" into a nasty mess. For my final act, I'd say, "Now suppose you happen to throw your candy wrapper away as you're walking home from school..." I would suddenly whip a wrapper out of my pocket and drop it into the middle of the gross "ocean," which covered it almost completely.
The best part of this lesson was that every time, every time, the kids would get extremely concerned about how I was going to dispose of the "polluted" water after the class. Surely I wasn't going to dump it over the side of the ship? I had to let them watch me empty it into a disposal bucket. Success. Success.
If you don't happen to teach outdoor education classes, there's still plenty you can do. Like the beach cleanup I'll be going on this weekend, if you see a piece of plastic lying on the ground, pick it up. Plastic is forever. It's not going anywhere on its own, except perhaps down to the ocean.
London's creative rubbish cage.
Here's an interesting solution I spotted while I was in London. The sign says, "I EAT RUBBISH! This device restores vitality to the Thames by collecting 40 tonnes of rubbish every year. That's equivalent to 800,000 plastic bottles." Brilliant, simple, and effective.
If you have mixed curbside recycling, as most major cities do, for goodness sakes, use it. Consider yourself lucky. Consider it an elite urban perk, and use it as much as you possibly can.
When I recycle, I have to sort everything into separate categories of green glass, brown glass, colored glass, tin, aluminum, steel, paperboard, cardboard, newspaper, and #1 plastics. (Seriously.) Then I drive it out to the transfer center and carry it into the trailers myself. My county doesn't offer recycling for other plastics, so I let my them accumulate in a bin at home until I have the chance to visit some other city/county/state that will take them. It's like my county tries to make it as difficult as possible for anyone to recycle, but I do it, by golly, jumping through all of those ridiculous hoops. When I remember that trash on the beach, whether it's here or across the globe, I know it's worth it.
So listen - if you have mixed curbside recycling, a service that actually comes to your house and does all that work for you...? For the love of humanity! What excuse do you have not to use it?
According to 5 Gyres, a group devoted to raising awareness about plastic pollution, "We currently recover only 5% of the plastics we produce. What happens to the rest of it? Roughly 50% is buried in landfills, some is remade into durable goods, and much of it remains 'unaccounted for', lost in the environment where it ultimately washes out to sea."
The way I see it, plastic can cycle around in one of two loops. One is the loop the dinosaurs sang about, where plastic polymers are shaped into products, used, and reshaped into new products. Then there's the other loop, the one where plastic polymers are released into the ocean, return into the bodies of people and wildlife, and are someday released into the ocean again. In both cycles, the plastic comes back. There is no "away" in "throwing away."
The moment a piece of plastic leaves your hand, you've started it on its cycle. Which one is up to you.
Choose your loop.