The Great Pacific Garbage Patch
By John A. Heddle
Photo by John A. Heddle
This garbage patch, now on exhibit at the BC Maritime Museum at 634 Humboldt Street, is probably not what you think. Certainly, it contains old fishing nets and plastic bottles, but mostly it is a snowstorm of plastic particles less than a quarter of an inch (technically 5 mm) in diameter. A better name would be the Terrible Pacific Plastic Patch, for it is terrible, which this exhibit illustrates very well.
The Pacific patch between California and Hawaii is the best known but there are five more such aggregations of water bottles, plastic bags, other floating plastic trash, and flotsam where ocean currents concentrate trash like the whirlpool in your kitchen sink. The large bits of plastic are largely confined to the upper foot or so of the ocean but the debris from its deterioration into tiny particles extends to the depths. Unfortunately, these microplastics have found their way to all oceans of the world, including our Arctic Ocean (which lacks a patch). Most animals in the oceans have them incorporated in their bodies, including seafood which we eat. As yet there are no published studies of their presence and effects in people. Nor is there any concrete evidence that the ubiquitous microparticles are causing harm, unlike the garbage bags that so filled the stomach of several whales that they starved to death. Also, the derelict fishing nets which continue to catch and kill fish, sea turtles, and whales. UNESCO estimates that 100,000 marine mammals die because of plastic pollution each year
The very properties of plastic, strength and durability, that make them useful are responsible for their persistence in the environment. Their fate, it seems, is to be broken up into ever smaller fragments which then find their way everywhere, even to rain on the pristine mountains of the Pyrenees, remote Tibetan plateaux, the arctic, and our Great Lakes. The quantities of plastic are astounding, A recent National Geographic article, available online (https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2017/07/plastic-produced-recycling-waste-ocean-trash-debris-environment/) paints a vivid and frightening picture a of the quantities involved, even speculating that in 30 years there will be more plastic than fish in the oceans!
Currently, the oceans are the main repository of plastic. In China and Europe, about 30% of plastic is recycled, whereas in the US only 9% is recycled. Canada, estimated at 10% recycling, is not much better, if at all. It seems that the only way to destroy it is to burn it and not much is destroyed. Some countries are working to reduce the use of plastic. In Thailand, food is being wrapped in banana leaves instead of plastic. Here plastic bags are being replaced by paper in Thriftys, and many other stores and people like you are bringing cloth bags to carry groceries home. Bravo! But buy anything new and you will have a great deal of plastic to dispose of. What happened to biodegradable cellophane?
Many ocean-going seabirds locate good feeding areas by the chemical odor of dimethyl sulfide, not a smell likely to attract you but one associated with rich marine fishing areas. Ocean plastic gives off tremendous concentrations of this chemical according to Mathew Savoca, a scientist at Stanford. The source is not the plastic itself, but tiny marine animals (zooplankton) which eat the miniscule marine plants (phytoplankton). These congregate and grow on the plastic. The seabirds that search for food by following this odor have much higher concentrations of the microplastics as a result. So far, the effects of the microplastics are not known though many are very concerned. Few studies have been conducted in a serious manner.
Not all is lost, however, as a number of groups are gearing up. The most ambitious is The Ocean Cleanup (https://www.theoceancleanup.com) which aims to clean up the Pacific Patch in five years. But, of course, it is essential to stop the inflow of plastics, too. Here in B.C. we have a new Canadian charity Plastic Oceans (https://www.plasticoceans.ca) which is actively working to do just that and plans to reach 20,000 school children this year. But they need donations. Do consider helping with one, please.
Meanwhile many volunteers are cleaning up the beaches of plastics and other debris, as the Green Party did Easter weekend at Clover Point.