Dying from Seas of Debris
Climate change and ocean acidification can be polarizing topics, but here’s something we can all agree on: There’s too much toxic plastic and trash in our fragile seas.
In other words, you can’t actually “see” the trash vortex. It doesn’t appear on satellite imagery. That’s the primary reason some folks remain skeptical about its existence: out of sight, out of mind.
Moore likens it to a “pumpkin face” that spans most of the North Pacific, all the way to Japan. “The eyes are the eastern and western garbage patches,” he says. “The area between them is also polluted with plastic, hundreds of thousands of particles per square kilometer. I think the simplest way to think of it is extending from 20 degrees to 40 degrees north latitude and 130 degrees west longitude to the coast of Japan. The Japan Sea is really polluted.”
Where does all the trash come from? Everywhere. “The ocean is the final resting place for almost all our waste,” says Moore. “Only we humans make waste that nature can’t digest. We have no other place to throw away our trash. ‘Away’ is no longer a place.”
And the very nature of our waste, it turns out, is wasteful by design.
“The problem facing us is that we’re using a material that’s toxic and takes hundreds of years to disappear for single-use objects, objects that are designed to be used for a few seconds, minutes, or days,” says Manuel Maqueda, the co-founder of the San Francisco-based Plastic Pollution Coalition (www.plasticpollutioncoalition.org), a cooperative devoted to changing people’s behavior about plastic consumption through education, legislation, and all other means possible.
“To give you an idea of how big this problem is,” he continues, “in the United States alone, every week, we discard 500 million plastic bottles for water, enough to go around the planet five times. One week. Just in the United States. Just for water. Every five minutes, we discard enough bottles to cover eight football fields.”
The more one becomes aware, says Maqueda, about plastics and their pervasiveness in our lives, the more we realize that the problem is hidden in plain sight. “For me, the Garbage Patch is just the tip of the iceberg,” he says. “It’s an entry point for understanding the issue, a physical manifestation of how out of hand the thing has gotten. But it’s not the issue itself. I see the Garbage Patch when I go to the grocery store and look at all the plastics that eventually will be polluting the environment. When I open my refrigerator door or go into my bathroom, I see the Garbage Patch.”
The issue, clearly, won’t simply disappear overnight.
“A teacher told me how to express the five percent of plastics that are recycled in our waste stream,” says Moore. “It’s diddly point squat. That’s the percentage we recycle. The problem of our throwaway society has been known for 50 years. The paradigm for our economy is unlimited growth. That model isn’t sustainable. Growth and sustainability are contradictory concepts. There’s not much room for optimism.”
For another San Francisco-based sailor, however, inaction isn’t an option. “Maybe it’s the Irish in me,” says Mary Crowley, the director of the charter and adventure sailing concern Ocean Voyages Inc. and its nonprofit arm, the Ocean Voyages Institute, which is dedicated to the preservation of marine arts and sciences and island cultures. “I’m not willing to accept that we’ve thrown all this garbage into the ocean and there’s nothing we can do about it.”