Sunday, April 18, 2010

Consider Plastics

Wrote an article for the SM Observer on Santa Monica couple the 5 Gyres.

Consider Plastics

Santa Monica Couple Helps Discover North Atlantic Garbage Patch

Consider plastics.   Most of us don’t, but because of Santa Monica residents Anna Cummins and Marcus Eriksen you should a little more.   The married couple are members of the 5 Gyres, a research team that recently presented their discovery of a North Atlantic Garbage Patch, located in the North Atlantic Gyre, at the 2010 Ocean Science Meeting.  

Before this February presentation in Portland the only “known” Gyre Garbage Patch was the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.  Since being discovered ten years ago the Great Pacific Garbage located between California and Hawaii has become infamous as a symbol of all that is wrong with our throwaway culture.  The Garbage Patch is vortex of floating plastic in the Pacific that is estimated to be somewhere between the size of the state of Texas and the entire country of the United States of America.   

Turns out the Great Pacific Garbage Patch isn’t the only one. Depressing yes, but hopefully it will make us think twice about plastics.  

Scientists and environmentalists have reported finding plastic in parts of the Atlantic since the 1970s, but the full extent of the damage wasn’t know until the 5 Gyres began explicitly mapping out the pollution.  As part of the 5 Gyres, Cummins and Eriksen took their sailboat, the Sea Dragon, to the North Atlantic Gyre and collected samples of the oceans surface to quantity the mass, size, color and type of plastic pollution floating.   They sailed across the Atlantic for with a group of scientists who trawled the sea between Bermuda and the mid-Atlantic Portuguese islands the Azores. 

Okay, I have to be truthful that up until a week ago I did not even know what a gyre was, so for everyone else who is undereducated on ocean currents, the official definition of a gyre is a circular or spiral motion or form especially a giant circular ocean surface current.  Think of it as convention currents for the ocean with a whirlpool at the end, all the tides and currents in each ocean move about the seas finishing off in one of the 5 Gyres (one for each ocean).   Thus anything that a current picks up along the way, especially any plastic something that floats, like your old toothbrush, that water bottle you didn’t even finish, or that candy bar wrapper, ends up floating in one of these massive Garbage Patches in the middle of the ocean.  Then these plastic somethings just sit there, never decomposing, never going away.  

Depressing yes, but hopefully it will make us think twice about plastics.  

5 Gyres research expedition is really very straightforward.  The 5 Gyres collect their research using a manta trawl.  The trawl, is slow towed behind the Sea Dragon sailboat, there it collects surface samples of debris greater than 333 microns, one third of a millimeter, about the size of a small piece of beach sand.  These samples are later sorted by the Algalita Marine Research Foundation lab in Redondo Beach into sizes and types of plastic.  After the pieces have inspected, the AMRF will then calculate the total weight of plastic pollution compared to the area and volume of the sea we sampled. 

And with Garbage Patches it’s not just an eyesore issue.   Animals eat these plastics, mistaking them for food sources.   Tiny pieces of the plastic lid on your coffee cup will end up in the stomachs of marine birds, fish and sea turtles.   Smaller organisms like jellyfish eat these plastic particles, they are then eaten by larger fish, who are then eaten by larger fish, slowly working their way up the food chain.  Along with plastic trawling, the 5 Gyres are collecting fish to study the environmental effects of the ingestion of micro plastic particles.

“This throwaway mentality is a relatively recent phenomenon. Just a generation ago, we packaged our products in reusable or recyclable materials, glass, metals, and paper, and designed products that would last. Take a look around you, most of what we eat, drink, or use in any way comes packaged in petroleum plastic, a material designed to last forever, yet used for products that we then throw away,” notes the 5 Gyres.  “Today, our landfills and beaches are awash in plastic packaging, and expendable products that have no value at the end of their short lifecycle.”

The short-term convenience of using and throwing away plastic products carries a very inconvenient long-term truth. These plastic water bottles, cups, utensils, electronics, toys, and gadgets we dispose of daily are rarely recycled in a closed loop. “Knowing the impact of plastic pollution on the world, inaction is unacceptable,” they state.  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.”

Depressing yes, but hopefully it will make us think twice about plastics.  

So what can we do about it?   In the opinion of the 5 Gyres, cleaning up plastic pollution from the world’s oceans is impractical. “Our communities manage waste with landfills and recovery centers, screens on storm drains and nets across rivers, but these post-consumer solutions are expensive to taxpayers.”  “Yes, it’s all very depressing and we’d rather look the other way, but if we as a planet focus more on than just today there are solutions.  What works are economic incentives: return deposits on bottles, return deposits on products (EPR), and even a “Plastic Drive” for local schools to collect all types of plastic for $/pound.  Efficient recovery of waste is essential- there is no "away" in throw-away.”
  Steel water bottles and cloth grocery bags, biodegradable plastics and green chemistry, closed loop product lifecycles, “these innovations and reinventions move us towards a more sustainable society, where the concept of ‘waste’ has no place,” notes the 5 Gyres.  

Some simple suggestions, you might consider for this Earth Day are:

  1. Commit to put your bags in the car, to not use plastic bottles, etc.
  1. Support legislative efforts to manage waste in your local community (like banning plastic bags in Santa Monica).  Your voice must be heard! 
  1. Bring your own bag, bottle, cup, To-Go Ware, and inspire others to do the same.
  1. Be a leader in your industry and community for sustainable living.

Yes it’s all easier said than done, but when you consider the fact that plastic has only been around fifty odd years, and how much damage we’ve already done, just think of how much damage is yet to come if we don’t change. Mindful living is something we all need to do both for ourselves and for each other.  Santa Monica is greener than some cities, but not as green as it likes to claim to be.   It still hasn’t gotten around to banning plastic bags, something it’s been “working on” for years and San Francisco accomplished over three years ago.    

Cummins and Erikson plan similar studies in the South Atlantic in November and the South Pacific next spring, so yes next year we’ll probably be hearing about another Garbage Patch in another ocean gyre, probably in yet another Earth Day article.  It can all be a little depressing if we don’t do anything, if we don’t make a change.  But we can, today, tomorrow, and the next day; because one of the most important things to remember is that you can always make a change.  So take a moment, as depressing as it is, and think twice about plastics. 

It’s almost a cliché to say that every day should be Earth Day.  Almost if it wasn’t true.   

Kat Thomas is a Santa Monica writer who hopes someday her town will really ban plastic bags.   You can read more of her food explorations on her food blog, the Edible Skinny.  

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