By 2050. the plastic in the oceans is projected to outweigh the fish in the oceans.
This diary is about a serious problem that needs wider attention. It’s also to make the point that environmental issues that have gotten so little attention this political cycle are in fact important.
A great deal of the plastic and other trash in the oceans seems to accumulate in rafts, something the way seaweed accumulates in the Sargasso Sea . The best known accumulation is in the eastern North Pacific and is usually known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The Patch is much larger than originally thought, according to a recent story in the Guardian. It’s now visible from space. According to this article, the Patch has a core of 386,000 square miles and a periphery of an additional 1,351,000 square miles. That’s considerably larger than India. It’s located between Hawai’i and the US West Coast. There are others, in the Western Pacific and in the Indian ocean.
Plastics are versatile and useful products. It’s hard to imagine contemporary life without them. Bottled water containers, shrink wrapping, plastic bags, a huge range of containers, coolers, fishing line and nets, flip-flops, and many other thousands of products are convenient for our contemporary human lives—and show up in the oceans as garbage where they are inconvenient for a lot of other life. A 2014 estimate is that five trillion pieces of plastic are floating in the ocean
Plastics are manufactured from petroleum, currently using about 5% of global production, predicted to go up to about 20% by mid-century. Plastics can be recycled, but many products made from plastics are used once (obviously items such as coolers and flip-flops are used more than once). Recycling and reusing plastic is the obvious solution, but it costs a good deal more than processing the original materials. The sharp drop in oil prices has made recycling a losing financial proposition (in environmental terms, of course, recycling plastic is something close to a moral duty). Currently about 95% of plastic is not recycled.
But it’s hard to imagine more plastic than fish in our oceans. The trash is dangerous. Wildlife that feeds on jellyfish may ingest plastic by accident, a severe problem for example, for leatherback turtles and the Laysan albatross. Seabirds and cetaceans can get fatally tangled in plastic materials. It’s also worth noting that the impact of all the garbage on phytoplankton is not well studied, but phytoplankton take more carbon out of the atmosphere than all the world’s forests—so if there turns out to be a serious impact, its consequences may affect the atmosphere.
The source of ocean garbage is not entirely clear. Garbage thrown from recreational boating accounts for some of it. There are for example more than 12 million recreational boats in the US, involving tens of millions of people each year, but much of it is on inland waters. Shipping and fishing place heavy pressure on the seas, with four times as many ships at sea in 2012 as in 1992(Note: the study the article I linked is based on, is firewalled; only the abstract is free, and I did not link to it here). It is probable that much of the garbage has shipping as its source. There has been a particularly heavy increase in ship traffic in the seas off China. There are about 111,000 ships on the seas, the workplace of about 1.5 million people. Other sources would include containers lost off container ships (10,000 or so a year—a few years ago, one container lost overboard was the origin of the famous yellow rubber ducks which scattered widely and were used to help map out ocean currents). Globally, there are a good many large and growing coastal cities that probably contribute.
The Garbage Patch does not accumulate trash in the same way a landfill might. The trash accumulation is large, but the oceans are large; a feature story in the Economist cites estimates that in the Garbage Patch, trash equals about 5 kilograms per square kilometer. That can be misinterpreted, because the stuff is not in concentrated blobs but scattered widely. A report in Science estimates that something like 1.5% to 4.5% of the world’s yearly total yearly plastic production winds up in the oceans. Enough, says Science, to line every foot of the world’s coastlines.
After time and weathering some plastic does degrade, into tiny bits that drift to the ocean bottom, with unknown effects. There will be enough of it so in ages to come (a couple of million years), whatever species dominates what’s left of the planet will have geological strata showing these peculiar bands of what then will be paleotrash. They’ll probably be able to figure out that they are of, sort of, biological origin, but may wonder what the hell was going on with life back then.
It’s also worth remembering that if the oceans die, we die, too.
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