Tsunami debris coming soon

Not long from now (a year to three years, maybe) the flotsam and jetsam from the March 2011 Pacific tsunami will make its way to the West Coast of America.  "The floating debris will likely be carried by currents off of Japan toward Washington, Oregon and California before turning toward Hawaii and back again toward Asia, circulating in what is known as the North Pacific gyre.  If you put a major city through a trash grinder and sprinkle it on the water, that's what you're dealing with,"  says Curtis Ebbesmeyer, a Seattle oceanographer who has tracked ocean flotsam for decades.
  Much of the debris will be made of plastic, which never entirely breaks down.  Read story here.

Japan tsunami wreckage
The tsunami that hit Japan caused over $300 billion in damage

If the ocean is the birthplace of all life, it is now becoming a repository of all trash.  Remember the "message in a bottle" that floats to a distant shore where someone finds it someday?  Trash in the ocean is that "message" -- multiplied exponentially.  And as a main present-day ingredient of the birthplace of all life, it is causing serious repercussions.

Ocean debrisToday, marine debris consists of very ordinary things -- with cigarette butts at the top of the list.  Then come cups, lids and food wrappers, with rope at #10, and rubber tires a big one too.  The 2008 ICC report lists nearly 27,000 tires found (and these are only the ones that have been found, so who knows how many there really are).  Considering that a disposable diaper is calculated to last for 450 years and an aluminum can for 200, we are really in for trouble.

Half a century ago, our trash was more likely to be biodegradable.  But as we have embraced plastic as the No. 1 "facilitator" of our modern lives, it is literally taking over our world.  Its polymer chains are so strong that plastic, even when broken down into the smallest of pieces, can last for centuries.  Our oceans are developing garbage patches where currents swirl trash together in giant sprawls that will go nowhere, due to the circulating oceanic water patterns known as gyres.

Marine debris comes from two places -- from what's on or in the ocean (e.g., ships, rigs) or from the land itself.   Manufacturing (and the deliberate dumping of waste) is one big source, but people are another.  Storms that wreak havoc on the land can fill inland waterways with man-made debris that then pours into the ocean.  Storm drains do not connect with treatment plants -- they head straight for the ocean.  Shoreline recreational activities account for much of the food-wrapper debris floating in the ocean.  For an excellent marine-debris guide (courtesy of International Coastal Cleanup), click here.

NurdlesPre-consumer plastic comes in little balls or pellets and is shipped around the world to manufacturers.  "Nurdles," as they are known (the size of little peas or lentils), can be found in the rack line on beaches, dotting the sand along with shells and bits of kelp.  Stoop down where the high tide has left its mark (called the "rack line") and notice the fragments of plastic.  When plastic breaks down and bleaches out, it becomes tan, taking on the same size, shape and form as zooplankton (animal forms of plankton).  Ocean creatures of all varieties eat zooplankton.  In fact, researchers are finding the ratio of plastic flakes in water to be many times that of zooplankton.  Birds and fish are mistaking broken-down plastic for zooplankton and are feeding on it.   Watch these videos to learn more.

Captain Charles Moore of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation in Long Beach, California reminds us that the ocean is "downhill from everything" ... (See www.algalita.org)

Plastic water bottlesWhat are estrogenic plastics?  Plastics are manufactured (polymerized) under heat and pressure and contain chemicals that enhance their utilities.  Some of these chemicals are known to disrupt our endocrine system (hormone production and regulation).  Bisphenol A, the key ingredient in polycarbonate synthetics and epoxy resins (think plastic containers and their interior coatings), has an estrogenic effect on animals and humans, causing endocrine overload and contributing to improper development or even disease.  As plastics enter the ocean, they affect fish and birds in similar ways.

Read more about health and plastics here and here.

Moby DuckOn January 10, 1992 a cargo ship from Hong Kong accidentally tipped 12 containers into the Pacific Ocean.  From these emerged 28,800 plastic bath toys -- red beavers, green frogs, blue turtles and the famous yellow floating duck.  Eleven years later, an anthropologist found one of the ducks on a pile of seaweed in Maine, weathered and worn.  And in the interim, they had bobbed up to the Alaskan coast and across the Arctic, all the way to the North Atlantic by the summer of 2003.

The story of the "Floatees," as they were called, made its way into many newspapers and magazines, perhaps because the toys had actually done what they were supposed to do -- float.  Dr. Curtis Ebbesmeyer, a Seattle oceanographer, learned that containers break loose when a ship rolls more than 35 degrees, and the Floatees had plopped into the ocean during a heavy winter storm.  They were able to withstand ten years of orbiting the Artic ice.

Quoting Donovan Hohn in his article "Moby-Duck" (Harper's magazine, January 2007):  "I've begun to notice currents everywhere, a universe of eddies and gyres.  Phytoplankton ride the same ocean currents that carried the Floatees to Sitka.  Zooplankton follow the phytoplankton.  Fish follow the zooplankton.  Sea lions, whales, and people follow the fish.  When, at the end of their upriver journey, salmon spawn and die en masse, their carcasses -- distributed by bears, eagles, and other scavengers -- fertilize the forests that make the fog, which falls as rain, which changes the ocean's salinity.  All deep water travels along what oceanographers call the "converyor belt," which begins with warm water from the Gulf Stream draining into the North Atlantic, where evaporation increases the salinity and makes it sink to the ocean floor, where it creeps south into the Antarctic circumpolar stream.  After a thousand years -- a millenium! -- the conveyor belt ends here, in the North Pacific, where the ancient water wells up, carrying nutrients with it.  I'm becoming a devout driftologist.  The only essential difference between rock, water, air, life, galaxies, economies, civilizations, plastics ... is the rate of flow."

46,000 pieces of visible plastic per square mile

Ocean debrisThe California Coastal Commission states that a single square mile of ocean contains 46,000 pieces of visible plastic, to say nothing of the stuff we cannot see.  Celluloid, the granddaddy of modern plastic, was invented in 1869 by John Wesley Hyatt of Albany, New York, and consisted of ground camphor mixed with nitrocellulose.

Soon after its invention, celluloid was being touted as "the salvation of the world."  Whales, elephants and the forest itself would be given a rest as petroleum came to the rescue.  "It will no longer be necessary to ransack the earth in pursuit of substances which are constantly growing scarcer," said an 1878 sales brochure.  But only 100 years later, "plastic had gone from miracle substance to toxic blight," writes Donovan Hohn.  "In 1968, at the dawn of the modern environmental movement, the editor of Modern Plastics argued that his industry had been unfairly vilified.  Plastic was not the primary cause of environmental destruction, he wrote, only its most visible symptom.  The real problem was 'our civilization, our exploding population, our lifestyle, our technology.'"

Moby DuckHohn continues:  "Never mind that only 5 percent of plastics actually end up getting recycled. ...What's most nefarious about plastic is the way it invites fantasy, the way it pretends to deny the laws of matter, as if something -- anything -- could be made of nothing; the way it is intended to be thrown away but chemically engineered to last.  By offering the false premise of disposability, of consumption without cost, it has helped create a culture of wasteful make-believe, an economy of forgetting."

Read the full Moby-Duck article here.