– A series of new reports are raising concerns about the damage plastic waste is doing to oceans — harming marine animals, destroying sensitive ecosystems, and contaminating the fish we eat.
The United Nations Environment Programme, as well as the NGOsGlobal Ocean Commission and Plastic Disclosure Project, released reports on Monday ringing the alarm bell about the environmental impact of debris on marine life.
Plastic waste in oceans is causing $13 billion of damage each year, according to the UNEP report, and that figure could be much higher. Worldwide plastic production is projected to reach 33 billion tons by 2050, and plastic makes up 80% of litter on oceans and shorelines.
“Plastics undoubtedly play a crucial role in modern life, but the environmental impacts of the way we use them cannot be ignored,” said UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner in a press release.
Ten to 20 million tons of plastic end up in the ocean each year, from litter, runoff from poorly managed landfills, and other sources. Once it’s in the water, plastic does not degrade but instead breaks into smaller pieces and swirls in massive ocean gyres, creating soupy surfaces peppered with the material.
Scientists are especially worried about the growing prevalence of tiny microplastics which are smaller than 5 millimeters. These include microbeads, which are used in toothpaste, gels, facial cleansers and other consumer goods. Microplastics aren’t filtered by sewage treatment plants, and can be ingested by marine animals with deadly effect.
Ocean debris isn’t just an environmental issue — it also complicated the search for Malaysia Airlines flight 370 earlier this year, as floating debris confused satellite images.
What can be done?
“It’s not just an ocean problem, it’s a business and a municipal issue,” Woodring said. “The ocean is just downstream of our activities. The real solution is upstream at the producer and user end.”
Governments can help solve the problem by regulating the use of plastics and creating infrastructure to recycle them. For example, dozens of nations have banned plastic bags at supermarkets or restricted their use.
That’s a “good start,” said Ada Kong, a campaigner at Greenpeace. But they can go further, she said. “Governments should enforce laws to regulate the cosmetic manufactures to label the ingredients (of consumer goods), including all the microplastics.”
The general public can also be conscious about their plastic footprint by simply purchasing goods without a lot of excess plastic packaging. People should also separate their plastic from other waste and recycle it, Woodring said.
From waste to resource
Companies that produce plastic goods have perhaps the biggest opportunity to make a difference, Woodring said. They can engage their customers with rebate or deposit programs, giving them incentives to bring back plastic for recycling.
“Everything from bottles to food packaging can be made from recycled plastic,” Woodring said. “The technology is there today to reuse it.”
His organization is hosting a “Plasticity Forum” in New York City on Tuesday featuring presentations about how to creatively reuse plastic.
Plastic isn’t just waste — it’s “a valuable material, pound-for-pound worth more than steel, and we’re just not capitalizing on it today,” Woodring said.
The new reports come on the eve of the first-ever United Nations Environment Assembly in Nairobi, a forum for environmental ministers, scientists, and others to discuss strategies to combat climate change and other environmental problems. An ocean conference hosted by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Washington, D.C. last week also focused on marine pollution.
Perhaps the greatest sign of the problem is the rapidly-growing Great Pacific Trash Patch, a massive sheet plastic and other debris that circles in a gyre across the ocean.
-Article compliments of Daojun Wu (CNN)-
Even creatures at the bottom of the ocean aren’t sheltered from the detritus of human civilization. Underwater surveys conducted at dozens of sites in the northeast Atlantic and Acrtic oceans and the Mediterranean Sea found fishing gear, plastic, metal, glass and other bits of garbage in shallow and deep waters both near and close to shore.
The research, led by Christopher Pham of the University of the Azores in Portugal, was published today in PLOS ONE. Similar studies have documented trash lining the seafloor in other areas, such as Monterey Canyon off California and the more than 7000-meter-deep Ryukyu trench off the coast of Japan [PDF]. Our trash is everywhere.
Around 14 billion pounds of litter makes its way into the world’s oceans every year. Some is created when fishing gear is lost. More comes when our trash washes off streets and down through waterways to the sea. Whole containers of goods may be swept overboard from the numerous ships plying the waves. And plenty of trash was deliberately dumped from barges and ships (a practice only recently banned by international convention).
The trash that floats on top of the ocean—often in great garbage patches at the center of gyres—or that washes onto beaches is most visible and gets the most attention. But plenty of it ends up on the seafloor. It’s just harder to see.
“The large quantities of litter reaching the deep ocean floor is a major issue worldwide, yet little is known about its sources, patterns of distribution, abundance and, particularly, impacts on the habitats and associated fauna,” Pham and colleagues write.
Pham’s team collected data from surveys at 32 underwater sites in the northeast Atlantic and Acrtic oceans and the Mediterranean Sea that took place between 1999 and 2011. These surveys either trawled the seafloor or sent down still and/or video cameras to image what was on the ocean bottom. The surveyed sites were located near as well as thousands of kilometers from shore, at depths of 35 to 4,500 meters, and were located on continental shelves and slopes, ocean ridges, banks, mounds and seamounts and within submarine canyons and deep basins.
Not one site was free of human garbage.
The surveys turned up trash along the mid-Atlantic ridge, 2,000 kilometers from shore. It was found in the shallowest waters as well as the deepest. Actually, the deepest areas, such as the Lisbon and Blanes canyons, had the highest densities of garbage, the researchers calculated.
“Such records were not surprising,” Pham’s team noted in their paper, “as litter is known to be present in all seas and oceans of the planet, as remote as the Southern Ocean and at depths as deep as 7,216 m in the Ryuku trench, south of Japan.”
The most common items were the ubiquitous plastic bags now banned in some cities. There were also glass bottles, fishing lines and nets, wood, cardboard, bits of clothing, pottery and a material called clinker. Clinker is the residue of burnt coal, and it was common in the late 18th to 20th centuries for steam ships to dump this waste material overboard, so most of this type of trash is more than 100 years old.
The abundance of plastic might be a surprise for some as plastic floats. But about 70 percent of it eventually sinks to the seafloor, the researchers note.
Abandoned, derelict fishing lines and nets were most often found in areas such as seamounts and banks that host dense communities of fish and shellfish. Those are the regions, of course, where fishing vessels are most likely to ply their trade.
Scientists are still figuring out the global patterns of distribution of all this garbage. But they do know quite a lot about its effects on marine life. Some organisms eat the trash, thinking its food. Others—especially turtles, marine mammals and birds—get entangled in it, and sometimes die. Fish get caught up in drifting nets, in what’s known as “ghost fishing.” And chemicals such as dioxins get consumed by small organisms and concentrated in organisms further up the food web, where these poisons can reach lethal levels.
This has to make us wonder: Is there any pristine place left on Earth?
Article compliments of the Smithsonian.
A massive, swirling vortex of plastic refuse floats the currents of the Pacific Ocean, choking out marine wildlife on every level, from near microscopic phytoplankton to the gargantuan sperm whale. It’s a global crisis previously believed to be hopelessly beyond repair. Armed with a novel, research-based plan of attack, Oceanus is tackling the problem of rampant plastic pollution and turning it into a venture rife with invaluable possibilities.
Oceanus’ objectives are straightforward: clean the gyre, transform plastic debris into workable material, and build upon that; think of it as eco-righteous retribution. Our dynamic and efficient new ways of thinking about the gyre will pave the road to an infinitely healthier, more productive marine environment. With the goal to create a green-living community steeped from inception in the tradition of self-sustainability, Oceanus is embarking on a promising journey.
To learn more about Oceanus, or to explore how you can participate in the plastic recycling revolution, please visit: www.titan-oceanus.com
For years now, many have turned a blind eye to the blight we have inflicted upon our oceans. Overwhelmed by the task at hand, they have hastily labeled cleanup an impossibility. This is unacceptable. Here at Oceanus, we reject that defeatist mentality. Instead of allowing this momentous task to rout us, we have developed an entirely new approach in regards to the reversal of our plastic pollution problem.
The traditional approach to cleaning up the substantial amount of plastic debris floating in our gyres usually involves a fleet of ships (which would pollute the environment even more), hundreds of people, billions of dollars, and massive nets that would trap more marine life in them than plastic. Those who claim oceanic cleanup to be an impossibility are right about one thing: these conventional courses of action would not only be impractical, but inexecutable as well. So, then, what do we do? We think outside the box. We eliminate stale and outdated ideas. If we are going to tackle the problems of today for the betterment of tomorrow, we cannot employ the same archaic ways of thinking that we used when we created this mess.
A simple idea—one so obvious a solution that it’s mind-boggling it hasn’t been done before. There are obstacles impeding the cleanup of our oceans gyres? Well, eliminate the obstacles. It really is just that simple.
Instead of acquiring a fleet of ships, which would burn preposterous amounts of fossil fuel, thereby hastening global warming, we will acquire a single cargo ship. We then modify this standard cargo ship to fit our needs: we outfit this ship with solar paneling and mobile wind turbines to help with energy needs, consequently lowering our consumption of fossil fuel, and in turn, the pollution that comes with it; we will also be outfitting this ship with a specially modified skimmer, powered by a powerful dredge pump that has been designed to skim the surface of the gyre—negating the need to use inefficient nets that would do little more than snare marine wildlife; furthermore, we will be revamping the ship’s engine so that it can run on environmental friendly biodiesel blends, lessening our carbon footprint even more. In addition to these modifications, we will be outfitting the ship with one final component, to be addressed below.
We then set off for the gyre, a trip which will take approximately one week. Once there, we begin siphoning the top layer of the gyre (the majority of this plastic debris floats within ten meters of the surface of the water). The wonderful thing is, once we arrive at our destination, we have no further need to run the ship’s engines. The solar paneling and wind turbines will generate enough energy to supply power to the parts of the ship needing it. The only times we will be running the engines will the infrequent trips to and from the gyre.
By this phase of our operation, we will have removed and stored vast amounts of plastic debris from the water. Now, instead of burning unconscionable amounts of fuel going back and forth from gyre to land-based recycling facilities, we bring the recycling facility to us. We will have equipped our ship with all the necessary sorting and recycling machinery needed to recycle this plastic at sea—the final addition to Oceanus’ ship.
The ability to process and recycle the captured plastic from the gyre while still at sea is an integral part of Oceanus’ plan, because believe it or not, all of this plastic is going right back into the water from which it was extracted. On-ship, we will use our recycled materials to build what amount to sophisticated Lego blocks. These floating modular blocks will be constructed using specially designed casings, coated in a UV-resistant polymer (which will keep our materials from photodegrading), and filled with the recycled plastic we have been polluting our oceans with for generations now.
The blocks will then be encased in concrete, to both ensure structural integrity, and to contain any toxins that may have seeped into the recycled plastics, keeping them from further harming our environment. With each modular block built, our oceans will become cleaner, safer, and healthier. More than that, even, these former pollutants then become valuable tools with which to build an entirely green, self-sustainable, and environmentally conscious community, rife with possibilities.
Once the blocks are built, we fasten them together using special interlocking dowels. This creates a sound and stable structure, capable of supporting any kind of habitat to be built atop it. We are actually using some of the same technology that is currently being used in floating oil platforms around the world, known to be a reliable foundation for heavy structures on open waters. The difference is, they are destroying the environment, we are restoring it. By layering fertile soil over the blocks, we will also be creating the opportunity to raise crops on Oceanus, further ensuring its self-sustainability.
As our efforts to eradicate plastic pollution accumulate, so do our building materials. With each block locked into place onto Oceanus, our community grows. Environmental, medical, and pharmaceutical research facilities, private homes, and public gardens are built, all powered by solar, wind, and wave energy.
Our goals here at Oceanus are multifold. While our primary objective is, and always will be, oceanic cleanup, if we are going to tackle one of the largest and most critical environmental crises humanity has faced to date, we cannot be singular in our objective. In the pursuit of our primary goal, a multitude of other forward-thinking opportunities will present themselves. Our closed circle plan is teeming with benefits—the reduction of pollution, the resuscitation of marine wildlife, and all of the myriad of prospects presented by Oceanus’ floating real estate are just the broad strokes of this vision. Imagine a community of like-minded, progressive individuals pioneering an entirely new environmentally sound way of life, surrounded by an ever-expanding region of recovering ocean. This is Oceanus.
Plastic: a remarkable, cheap, and light-weight material, both durable and long lasting. This space-age polymer was once viewed as the path to a better and brighter future, and in many ways it has been. Without the invention and application of plastic, the advances our species has made over the past century in science, medicine, and technology would have been unattainable. We would not be living in the advanced world we are now, if it wasn’t for the development of plastics. That’s not even taking into account the affect plastic has on the luxuries of our daily lives, things like transportation, communication, food preservation, and the like. Plastic has not only helped to rocket humanity into an age of advanced science and technology, but has also helped to shape our day-to-day lives into ones of convenience.
Make no mistake though, there is a dark side to this seemingly miraculous material, one that could very well outweigh all the benefits provided by this resilient polymer—the same property that makes it such a popular substance: it’s longevity. Plastic was designed to last forever, and that’s exactly what it does.
Of the estimated 200 million tons of plastic littering our oceans, the majority can be found floating in one of the six major oceanic gyres around the world. These massive, slowly rotating gyres are the result of ocean currents converging in such ways that they create these colossal oceanic vortices. Now, imagine over 200 million tons of plastic debris thrown in the mix. The results are disastrous. The largest of these, the North Pacific Gyre, actually consists of two somewhat smaller gyres, creating a singular enormous whirling vortex of trash that spans an area larger than the United States. This is commonly referred to as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
One of the problematic properties of plastic is that it’s not biodegradable; it literally lasts forever. While plastic does not biodegrade, it does photodegrade: UV light from the sun breaks the plastic down into ever-smaller pieces of plastic known as microplastics. Do not mistake this process with biodegradation though. These microplastics break down into smaller and smaller pieces, but they always remain what they are: plastic—just smaller pieces that are increasingly harder to clean up. Over 90% of the plastic polluting our oceans is made up of microplastics smaller than your fingernail. This photodegradation continues right down to the microscopic level, where we can’t even see the individual pieces of plastic with the naked eye. Instead, we see this viscous toxic sludge where water should be. We are not only polluting our oceans, we are actually changing the chemical composition of them as a whole. That is a big deal.
These microplastics act like sponges. They soak up and retain all kinds of toxic chemicals, such as DDT and PCBs. Unable to distinguish their food from these microplastics littering our ocean, many marine animals end up dying with bellies so full of plastic that no food can pass through them. They literally starve to death with full stomachs. Imagine this—it’s a horrifying reality.
While many animals perish from the ingestion of virulent plastic, many others survive long enough to enter our food chain, permeating it with toxins from the bottom up. In the picture to the left is a rainbow runner, a popular game fish, that was caught off the coast of California, belly chock-full of toxic microplastic. Here’s the thing, all this plastic is going nowhere, except in the bodies of the fish we consume—unless we contain it. Here at Oceanus, that is what we plan to do.
This environmental crisis is exactly that, an environmental crisis—one of the largest to date. If our oceans go, we go. Experts predict that over the course of the next two generations, if nothing is done to stem this, and we continue in this disposable plastic throw-a-way culture we are so used to living in, with no oceanic cleanup, all of our oceans will be in the same conditions as the gyres are now, if not worse. It’s already starting to happen.
The irony of it all, is we cannot just cut plastic out of our lives. We live in a plastic world. We rely on plastic too much to just delete it from our culture. If we as a species were to just exsect plastic from our lives altogether, we would not only halt any and all medical, technological, and scientific progression, we would be retrogressing back to a tribal-like society.
Plastic is used in just about everything we interact with: communication, transportation, consumption, medicine, technology, modern luxuries, down to the device you are using to read this. We can’t just stop using plastic on a macro level like that. It’s not feasible, logical, or possible—something more must be done. While plastic restraint is quite important, as is the development of biodegradable plastics, it’s just not enough. We must focus on cleanup.
Hindered by a stale and banal way of thinking, oceanic cleanup has been virtually nonexistent. We need a fresh, new perspective. Something innovative and bold. The outdated, conventional ways of the past, in regards to dealing with this just aren’t cutting it (as is proven by the lack of notable action that has been taken thus far). Outside of the box thinking is what’s needed if we are going to tackle one of the largest environmental crises of our time. The traditional approach to gyre cleanup usually revolves around scores of ships trawling the ocean with huge nets,miles long, to collect plastic debris. Researchers and government agencies alike have faced a multitude of obstacles with that traditional approach—things like: the mass amount of manpower that would be needed to operate the scores of ships necessary for a project of this scale; the astronomical price it would cost to fund a project of that magnitude, most of which would be the tremendous amount that would be spent on the fueling of all those ships; also the environmental damage that would be wrought by the burning of all that fossil fuel, which could very well be even more harmful to our environment than if we had done nothing; and most importantly, the fact that the majority of what would be caught in those nets would be marine life, since all the microplastic (which is the real problem) would just slip right through any traditional net, and any net fine enough to collect microplastic would also collect plankton, a disastrous culling, as phytoplankton is the source of over 50% of the world’s oxygen. These are some of the reasons why many researchers and government agencies have all but given up on this daunting task, giving in to defeatism. Yes, when viewed in that light, under those guidelines, it does seem impossible… But there is still hope.
Plastic may have once been the path to a better and brighter future for all humanity, but our negligence as a species has come full circle. Plastic has now become our calamity. As when dealing with many things from 100 years ago, we must change our mindsets. We must change the way we think not only about plastic, about pollution, and about cleanup, but our conceptualization and approach as well. The time for stale thinking and timidity is over. It’s time we step up and handle this calamity we have beset ourselves with, not just for the survival and betterment of our species, but for the world as a whole.
We as a people created this disaster. We cannot sit idly anymore, letting this plastic refuse poison our oceans. If we do, we are not only poisoning our oceans, we are not only poisoning the marine life, we are not only poisoning ourselves, but we are poisoning generations to come. Is that the legacy we really want to leave?
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