While researching one of my works in progress about a lone sailor I came across some info about rubbish in the sea. We all know it exists, but I was amazed at some of the facts I discovered.
Fifty years ago, most floating rubbish was bio-degradable. Now it’s 90% plastic, and practically indestructible. Four years ago, the UN Environment Programme estimated that there were then 46,000 pieces of floating plastic in every square mile of ocean. And that was four years ago, so what is the figure now? 80% of the rubbish is carrier bags, bottles, flip flops, children’s toys, tyres, yoghurt pots, etc., in short the detritus of a modern consumer society. Last year, rescuers searching for the wreckage of Air France flight 447 which had disappeared over the South Atlantic, were astonished to find that their instruments were not picking up any signs of wreckage, but were detecting vast amounts of rubbish instead.
The rubbish is not necessarily dumped there directly; plastic rubbish gets blown out of littered streets and landfills, and is conveyed by rivers and drains to the sea. It’s also washed off beaches. Once in the water, 70% sinks to the ocean floor, while the remainder floats, usually within 20 metres of the surface. Out to sea the rubbish gets drawn into huge circular currents known as ‘gyres’, and accumulates in their centres. Huge pools of plastic are building up in each of the world’s five major gyres, and the greatest known concentration is in the North Pacific where around six million tonnes have come together to form what’s called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch by campaigners – it’s a pool of rubbish twice the size of Texas!
Scientists have warned about plastic rubbish in the oceans since the 1980s, but it wasn’t until 1997 that the true scale of the problem was discovered by a Californian sailor called Charles Moore, who was on his way home from a race in Hawaii. He and his crew were motoring across the top of the North Pacific gyre and they watched an unending procession of bottle caps, toothbrushes, Styrofoam cups, detergent bottles and plastic bags pass by them. “It took us a week to get across and there was always some plastic thing bobbing past,” he said. The plastic is impossible to photo from the air, and is hard to see unless you’re in the middle of it. Even then, the larger pieces of plastic are only the beginning of the problem. They swim in a plastic soup of tiny particles that are either plastic fragments worn down by friction and exposure to sunlight, or resin pellets no more than 2mm across known as ‘nurdles’, the micro ingredients from which disposable plastics are made. Billions of tons of nurdles are shipped around the world each year, and a lot of them are spilled, lost, and flushed down the drains. Beachcombers call them ‘mermaid’s tears’.
Biologists are only now beginning to work out the threat posed by nurdles and other flecks of plastic. Fish, birds and whales mistake them for tiny fish and plankton, and then find them impossible to digest. More worrying still is the fact that they attract heavy metals and toxins in the ocean, industrial chemicals such as DDT and PCBs that would otherwise have stayed out of the food chain. Once consumed by smaller animals, the pollutants become more concentrated as those animals are eaten in turn by larger animals, and of course eventually by humans. “Our legacy is that you can buy certified organic farm produce, but no fishmonger on earth can sell you a certified organic wild caught fish,” said Moore.
According to the UN Environment Programme, general plastic rubbish kills a million seabirds every year worldwide, and 10,000 marine mammals and turtles. The animals die strangled by discarded fishing nets, or choked on rubbish they have eaten. Albatross populations in North Hawaii, a marine sanctuary for God’s sake, have been devastated by plastic. The giant birds have been found dead, their stomachs full of toothbrushes and syringes. Fulmar Petrels suffer a similar fate. The bodies of Fulmars washed up on North Sea coastlines have been found to contain on average 45 pieces of plastic per bird.
And the worst news about all this is that it’s now too late, we can’t clean it up. It would take an enormous amount of resources to remove six million tonnes of plastic from the North Pacific gyre, and there’s a total of 100 million tonnes worldwide. If you try to net it all, the mesh required to gather up all the tiny plastic particles would be so small that it would also entrap millions of fish, devastating the ocean’s ecology. Many of plastics best qualities make it difficult and uneconomical to recycle. Charles Moore has been studying the problem for the last thirteen years, and he says, “Trying to clean up the Pacific gyre would bankrupt any country, and kill wildlife in the nets as it went.”
It’s too late to clean up what’s there already, so the challenge is to rethink the way plastics are used, and try to stop them reaching the oceans in the first place. Whatever happens though, much of the plastic already in the ocean will be there for centuries to come, and some predict that it will eventually form a layer in the geological record.
Leo Baekerland, a Belgian chemist, developed the first synthetic polymer in 1909, Bakelite, but he couldn't have foreseen the problems that would be created for the environment in the years since then. The First World War saw the invention of the first PVC, nylon was invented in 1935, and then in the period after the Second World War we had acrylics, carbon fibres and polyurethane, to name but a few. Since then, plastic bags, films and containers have revolutionised packaging and food supply chains, extending shelf lives and reducing the amount of food that’s wasted before it comes to market. The qualities that make plastics such ideal materials in the industrial process, lightness, cheapness and efficiency, are the same qualities that make them so hard to recycle. Even if collecting plastic rubbish was economical or environmentally sound, which it isn’t, the fact that manufacturers combine several polymers into the same product makes reprocessing impossible. And the only other option, incineration, produces carbon dioxide.
In 2010, the ‘Plastiki,’ a 60ft catamaran made out of plastic bottles, arrived at Christmas Island having sailed across the Pacific in an attempt to draw the world’s attention to the clutter in the middle of our oceans. How many people knew about that boat I wonder?