In the News: The Great Garbage Patch

| 1/18/2011 4:48:44 PM

L.HoltA recent study into the Great Pacific Garbage Patch has revealed that what textbooks called “the size of Texas” is a false statement. It’s worse than that.   

In a society primed by television, photographs and the internet, we react to what we see—size, shape, color, dramatic effect and emotional content. Because of this tendency, it’s difficult for researches to convey the true seriousness of the damage plastic is doing to Earth’s oceans; the most pervasive and insidious kind of plastic (90 percent of it) is essentially invisible to the naked eye. There’s more plastic out there than algae.

So let’s make a new visual: You’re taking a shower, scrubbing down with exfoliating face scrubs and micro-bead body washes. You feel the friction against your skin? You see the little colored beads, smaller than the head of a pin? If your soap contains polyethylene, then your soap carries little bits of plastic. And now you’re washing them down the drain to enter the water supply, the rivers, and eventually the ocean.

When they get there, they will be either mistaken for food or accidentally consumed by thousands of species of marine life: birds, fish, dolphins, whales, seals, etc. In addition to its lack of nutritional content, plastic stores toxins like DDT (one of the most well-known synthetic pesticides), slowly poisoning animals through their stomachs. And that’s beyond the Bisphenol-A that plastic is already likely to contain. What happens next? A lot of animals die, ecosystems and habitats are deeply disrupted, and then, in all probability, you eat a fish that has consumed and been poisoned by plastic, which can’t be very good for you either.

Granted, your exfoliating scrub isn’t the only source of plastic in the ocean, but it is potentially an increasingly dangerous one: it’s a type of plastic that is intended to go down the drain and enter the water supply, and sewage treatment plants aren’t designed to remove it. Plastic that does break down is highly toxic, and it’s nearly impossible to remove from the ocean, due to its tiny size.

Most of the plastic polluting the ocean is invisible to the naked eye.
Photo by Courtesy Flickr