Let's Talk Garbage
No, I'm not suggesting that we bad-mouth, belittle or disparage each other by talking trash figuratively, metaphorically or even synecdochically [look it up]. I'm suggesting that we literally have a chat about garbage, in its most massive, buoyant and particulate form, as found 'all-at-sea' (again literally not figuratively) in a series of POPs.
Now I can see I've really confused you with the abbreviation POP.
By POP I don't mean:
- the latest flavour of the week's 'pop' or popular music, being blasted in your ear by radio jocks;
- Post Office Protocol;
- A not too loud bang - as in 'pop' goes the weasel, 'pop' your cork, or 'pop' that balloon;
- The 'old man' - as in, "Can I borrow the car tonight, pop?";
- A soft carbonated drink - as in soda 'pop', at least one of which brands was reputedly alleged to dissolve steel nails;
- A sugary tooth decay propogant such as ice pop, lollipop or popsicle; or
- Persistent Organic Pollutant (although this one's getting close).
Some of you more environmentally aware citizens who are reading this may have already guessed that I'm talking about Plastic Ocean Patches of Garbage, or just Garbage POPs.
But before we talk Garbage POPs, let's talk ocean currents or gyres (see figure below).
There are five major circulating ocean current systems, or gyres, located as shown above. These swirling gyres circulate around large areas of calm water. When our various accumulations of garbage, over many years, end up in our oceans or are dumped at sea, it follows that they will eventually be directed towards the centre of the gyres and become contained within these relatively still central ocean waters, resulting in garbage patches or garbage POPs. Each of these individual gyres has a sizeable garbage patch close to its centre, but the most significant POPs are found in the Indian Ocean, North Atlantic Ocean and North Pacific Ocean, the largest being in the latter. This monster is generally referred as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (look it up), but let's you and I call this the Great Pacific POP.
How Do POPs Form?
It appears (from this link and many similar others) that these POPs take a long time to form, starting with flotsam and jetsam, either carelessly discarded into our streams and rivers, or dumped from ocean-going vessels. This marine floating debris is then moved along by coastal currents (as outlined above) and then picked up by gyres (see also above), circulating until it makes its way to the centre where the POP forms as an ongoing entrapment, ever increasing in size.
What's in these POPs?
It appears (particularly from this link
) that most of the plastic (which has been sampled on an ongoing basis since the 1970s) consists of "rigid or hard polyethylene (PE) or polypropylene (PP), or derelict fishing gear" (the latter typically as nets or net fragments). Unlike wood or metal, such plastics don't break down into constituent organic components, but, given enough time, eventually diminish to microplastic size (ie 0.5mm to 5mm) due to the action of the sun, waves and temperature changes. Once the debris reaches such microplastic size it becomes very difficult to remove and is comparable with the algae and plankton that forms the bottom of the marine food chain.
How Big is the Great Pacific POP?
At present, the Great Pacific Pop (ie the largest of the POPs entrapped in each of the five main ocean gyres) cover an area of twice the size of Texas (What? Something's bigger than Texas?) or three times the size of France (1.6 million square kilometres approx and still growing exponentially). Furthermore, scientists from the The Ocean Cleanup
recently used 30 boats, 652 surface nets and 2 aerial imagery flights across and above this giant POP to estimate that the mass of this plastic is equivalent to 500 Jumbo Jets (80,000 metric tons). This estimate is reportedly based on the size and mass of the relatively denser central portion, for reasons of practicality. Accounting for the less dense surrounds would reportedly increase this estimate to approximately 100,000 tonnes.
In order to give some idea of how long these POPs have been around, The Ocean Cleanup estimates that every year 'we' (yes, you and I and all our plastic-polluting brethren) are disposing of between some 1 and 2.5 million tonnes of plastic, worldwide, into our oceans from our rivers, although it appears that, in addition to this, about half the mass of the Great Pacific POP comprises fishing net materials.
It is further estimated that there are approximately 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic (plus or minus half a trillion or more) in the great Pacific POP alone, and hence around 250 plastic bits for each of us on the planet.
Why the Enviro Big Deal?
Things wouldn't be so bad (who am I kidding?) if all this plastic just sat there in a stable non-toxic form, would it not? Well, marine mammals, fish and other sea creatures (including birds) mistake much of this plastic debris for food, leading to entanglement, malnutrition, health issues and often eventual death. BUT ALSO ... the majority of this plastic debris, according to several sources, contains "at least one Persistent Bio-accumulative Toxic (PBT) chemical, from which it follows that the marine fauna munching on this man-made meal are ingesting these toxic chemicals into the food chain. Needless to say, the action of successive predator upon predator eventually leads to toxicity arriving at the top of the food chain, namely us.
Would you like some PBT with your fish and chips, madam?
We all know the problems associated with single use plastic bags, PET bottles, straws, etc, etc, but most of us forget that, even in our most theoretically sophisticated garbage collecting and land disposing or recycle managing nations, plastics end up being dropped in our urban streets and rural roadside ditches, hence into our drains and then, depending upon the degree of filtration control (if any) of our wastewater and it's 'dead dogs and mattresses' coarse fragment flotsam, eventually into our streams, rivers and oceans. As these POPs accumulate, in their largest forms, well away from our coastal areas and shorelines, it is almost impossible to physically track the various individual national sources of this POP litter and hence to apportion proportionate blame and clean-up costs.
I initially hesitated to include the figure below (from this reference
) as neither the source nor method of estimation are explained. After some deliberation, however, I decided that it does serve to indicate, by at least relatively well-known anecdotal evidence, which countries are producing relatively large amounts of 'mismanaged waste' and hence, by inference, are potentially contributing the largest amounts of plastic to the POPs. It also indicates (or rather suggests) that "Asia and the Americas are clearly the most polluting geographical regions".
What Can You or I or Anyone Do?
Well things may not be as hopeless as you may initially think. For starters, there's an amazing non-profit organisation currently developing and implementing advanced technologies to rid the world’s oceans of plastic. Their headquarters are in Rotterdam and they are registered as a charity on the Netherlands and in the USA, their founder is Dutch inventor Boyan Slat, and they are called The Ocean Cleanup. Read more about their unique and ground-breaking work at this link
And there are other active organisations such as the Environmental Cleanup Coalition based in California, Innovate UK, based (as the name would imply) in UK, and the Plastic Oceans Foundation (also based in UK).
As for us as individuals, here are some basic ideas cribbed from the Australian Marine Conservation Society (AMCS) to which I am a minute but proud financial contributor:
- Step 1 - Be the change you want to be in the world - make a commitment and pledge to reduce single-use plastic in your everyday life.
- Step 2 - Influence others - inspire your local business, club, groups, workplace to come on board and stop single-use plastics in the community.
- Step 3 - Think BIG! Go straight to the top! Help bring governments and big business on board to create a plastic free nation.
Don't you just love this AMCS poster?
"Together we can turn the tide on plastic pollution. We must choose to refuse plastic, and at the same time stop it at the source. As stewards of an incredible marine natural heritage, Australia can and should be a world leader in stopping plastic pollution. Australia must lead by example and change our domestic plastic consumption and help our neighbours to do the same."Australian Marine Conservation Service
Remember that when our marine animals and birdlife suffer from the effects of plastic, we will eventually also suffer.
The above compelling images, along with many others, of homo sapiens entangled in marine plastics waste and the fishing net fragment, can be sourced at the Plastic Ocean Project
, an on-line gallery by Viennese artist /photographer Andreas Franke, which
I encourage you to visit.
When not researching the weird or the wonderful, the comical or the cultured, the sinful or the serious, I chase my creative side, the results of which can be seen as selected photographs of my travels on my website at:
The author of the above, Ken Boddie, besides being a sometime poet and occasional writer, is an enthusiastic photographer, rarely leisure-travelling without his Canon, and loves to interact with other like-minded people with diverse interests.
Ken's three day work week (part time commitment) as a consulting engineer allows him to follow his photography interests, and to plan trips to an ever increasing list of countries and places of scenic beauty and cultural diversity.