Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Ocean garbage mess and possible solutions

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is in the news again. Today, the Washington Post profiles a citizen hero who saw the nasty mess and is trying to do something about plastics in the ocean.

Or, if you prefer your news with a sharper edge and a foul tongue, then check out the sharp reporting of VBS-TV as they sail into the Garbage Patch and pull no punches regarding what they find.

Why all the news on human trash turned to ocean flotsam?

Something important happens to people when they encounter the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in the central Pacific Ocean. They get very upset. Jean-Michel Cousteau found it "horrifying," and First Lady Laura Bush saw how our waste can "devastate marine life." There's something awful about plowing through mountains of mostly plastic trash on beaches, or sailing through seas choked with plastic garbage in the middle of the ocean.

On land and at sea, dead animals testify to the harm caused by man-made trash in the ocean. Plastics seem to be the worst of the mess, animals can eat it, or get tangled in it, and many of them die. Yecch, what a way to go, starving because your stomach is stuffed full of indigestible bits of garbage.

Everyone who sees this mess seems to agree that something must be done.

And that's where the agreement ends. Talking about solutions just gets arguments started.

Some advocate getting rid of plastic bags, like Rebecca Hosking, a Washington Post Innovator (the world's ground-breakers and contrarians, problem solvers and restless minds). She cried tears that changed her life when she landed on Midway Island in the Pacific. "All you could smell was death," she recalled, thanks to plastic debris that clogged the stomachs and killed the dead albatrosses rotting on the Midway beach.

When she got back home to the village of Modbury in England, she found plastic bags littering the nearby sea. She researched substitute bags, enlisted the local butcher to test biodegradable cornstarch bags, and won a unanimous vote of support from local merchants. Now, most shoppers in Modbury carry reusable cloth bags, a key goal of the campaign, and the movement is spreading around the world. "I'm not an eco-warrior" she says, "we just did a little thing that worked."

Others, such as the American Chemistry Council (a chemical industry association), think the solution is recycling and litter control. They quoted Jean-Michel Cousteau in an Earth Day press release, saying people (not products) pollute. They believe the solution is in recycling, and they have a new campaign to promote recycling of plastics, because they're "too valuable to waste."

Doubt about the effectiveness of recycling are raised on the blog rise above plastics, but The Plastics blog reports on the other side of the story, and how corn-based bioplastics just confuse consumers.

How can we cut through the confusion? Let's listen to some experts.

The answer may be in green chemistry, the effort to design products and production methods so that we prevent problems like plastic waste accumulation in the ocean. An authoritative report from the University of California notes the Garbage Patch as the type of problem that could actually be prevented using smart production.

Contamination of the environment by plastic materials reflects a product management system gone awry. Plastic products are manufactured out of non-renewable materials, contain substances that are toxic to biological and ecological systems, and are designed and packaged for disposal rather than re-use. The resulting pollution presents unique environmental hazards; ocean plastics provide one example.

The North Pacific central gyre is a region of the Pacific Ocean between California and Hawaii in which ocean currents and wind patterns gather plastic and other debris into a central area. Plastic debris now covers an area of the gyre about twice the size of Texas. Researchers estimate that the mass of plastic particles is about six times greater than that of plankton, and that this ratio will grow ten-fold over the next ten years.6 Nearly all of this material comes from urban areas. Plastic debris has been found in the stomachs of 43 to 86 percent of seabirds and marine animals studied.

Due to their small size, plastic particles are not recoverable from the ocean; they are likely to remain in the marine ecosystem for hundreds of years. Ninety percent of the mass of floating debris in the world’s oceans — and 99% of the material on the world’s beaches — consists of plastic products and the pellets used to manufacture them.
A product management system gone awry? Those strong words are endorsed by 127 faculty members from seven UC campuses, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Maybe we should listen carefully to what they're saying.

Or, we could keep on making the mess and pay federal tax dollars to clean it up.

What do you think we should do about the garbage in the ocean? Please answer the blogfish poll in the upper right sidebar. I want your opinion on solving the ocean plastic trash problem.

The most important solution for the ocean plastic trash problem is:

-better plastic recycling
-ban the worst products
-clean up the mess
-what trash problem?

16 comments:

Eric Heupel said...

So the Chemistry Association i going to stick their heels in like Tobacco did...

Polymer products can be great but recycling alone is not working and is not the entire solution in my opinion.

I know it's not really all that feasible, but I still would love to see a bunch of boats go through the area and do a massive plankton tow. But it would take so many boats...and so many plankton nets...

Mark Powell said...

Plankton tows would remove the plankton along with the trash! Not so good. I do think you draw a relevant analogy Eric.

Max said...

"They quoted Jean-Michel Cousteau in an Earth Day press release, saying people (not products) pollute."
I've never heard it put that way, but now that I have it makes me think that recycling is even less useful than than I had thought before. I only say that because I live in a city with relatively high gun violence, and the NRA always tells everyone that guns don't kill, people kill. And time after time that's not true, because guns enable people to kill so easily that they don't even have to think about it. Similarly, plastic bags designed to be thrown away are so easy to destroy our environment with that I think we need to get rid of the products rather than attempt to change all the peoples' minds.

Kate said...

I have to disagree about the nets, Mark. I think putting some of those factory trawlers to work picking up garbage instead of fish could be a great idea. We can debate the mesh size of the net, but the plastic pieces in the Patch vary widely in size and a plankton net is likely to get clogged too fast to be efficient. We need to prevent pollution on land and be more cradle to cradle, but mixed plastic recycling is impractical now and stemming the future tide of trash won't clean up today's patch. So I think it's worth thinking more about clean-up.

Mark Powell said...

Bycatch Kate, bycatch! Think about the amount of trawling with small mesh nets that would be necessary to appreciably reduce the garbage patch. Would we encourage this if it were to catch flying fish instead of trash?

I think we'd need a small mesh net to have much value, go to the VBS-TV link and look at the videos of plastic trash to see the size range, much of it is 1 cm or less in size.

Clean up would be good, but I think it might not be practical. That's a testable hypothesis, BTW, and I do think it's worth testing.

Donald said...

I am new to beach cleaning. I have been fortunate to meet others on local community arranged beach clean up days, to find friendship and camaraderie. Our community prearranges four days (usually Saturday mornings) a year. One assignment is firm, as July 5 (fireworks cleanup day).

Is the idea of dragging portions of The Great Pacific Garbage Patch into currents to be washed onto land shore, then picked up by volunteers, unreasonable?

What the heck, as we go to space leaving a debris cloud 500 miles up, we talk about using different propulsion means to move space vehicles. I.E.: Solar sails for example?

Why do we not promote 'think tanks' to ponder how to move these floating debris piles to shore, (sun and/or wind propulsion) for clean up? Not cool, not NASA, not weapons grade thinking and industrial research?

Maybe a bit large of an undertaking for Gomer's Pyle, a pile too large to deal with? Doing nothing IS NOT the answer though! Everyone knows this to be true. I found out today, too.

I'll be cleaning the beach this July 5th though. Its the least I can do, in thanks for the fireworks I have spent in my youth.

ChangeItOrDrownIt

Anonymous said...

I would like to see a solar powered water filtration system in place within the dead zone. This would run 24 7 and what was collected could be recycled .

Leandro said...

Well if it's possible they should come up with some device that would be able to extract the dissolved plastic polymers in the ocean and then everything will be fine

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nick said...

I think there's some good insight here and i'm pleased to see people thinking positive. Consumption is a problem in our society that's not going to change anytime soon. Although I have seen change through the small community I live in, on a worldwide basis things are not getting much better.I agree with the people who say these plastic products must be cut off at the source.The corporations who manufacture plastic bottles should be held responsible,after all they are simply bottling municipal water and reselling for 1000x the cost. plastic bags and bottles must be eliminated and replaced with alternative material bags and water canteens.We are much too intelligent to be dumping unnecessary waste into the most valuable resource that exists.

terry said...

I'd love to see a series of floating solar/wind powered collectors out there siphoning up water, straining out the solids and compacting them into blocks, then sealing them up and setting them adrift to be picked up later. (dumb as it sounds, a Wall-E for the ocean)

buy viagra said...

I think the only solution for debris in the oceans, is not to, but not all people are aware of that.

Anonymous said...

I think that we need to decide that talking about is not going to make a difference, if you have an idea then you should do it

markrich2000 said...

The solution must address a significant reduction in plastic waste entering our global waterways. There are multiple solutions and I favor biodegradable products from organic sources. Secondarily there must be an effort to attack the waste islands. Imagine a fleet of vessels that set up around the islands. Floating harvesters with cranes, nets, etc., hoist debris onto the deck of ships that sort and compress the waste into blocks/bales. The blocks are then loaded onto shipping vessels which transport them to processing sites based in nations that surround the Pacific waste islands. The problem of netting smaller debris without endangering wildlife needs to be addressed. But lets not wait decades from now to start.

Anonymous said...

There is a solution to the "garbage collection problem". a concept paper is being drawn up at this present time. A ship of a suitable design is also being drafted. THINK IN A LATERAL MANNER!! Think in the long term (3 years) cheers

Anonymous said...

how about we genetically modify some fish so they digest the plastics.