Where Plastics Go To (Never) Die

by Owner on January 18, 2009

There is an ecological emergency out there, out of sight and mind of just about everyone. It’s an area twice the size of the continental US in the North Pacific ocean, a graveyard where every piece of plastic dumped into the oceans and rivers eventually goes to (never) die.

Sea currents carry any plastic that makes it into the ocean into this dead area, a process that can take decades. Sailors have long known about these zones, areas of little wind that could trap an ocean vessel. This one is called the Northern Pacific Gyre, a huge percolator that traps all of civilization’s plastic waste without escape except in the bellies and bodies of animals that ultimately end up on our dinner table either directly or after being consumed by larger creatures.

plasticrubbishoceanThe plastic in this huge zone, hundreds of thousands of tons of it, eventually breaks down into smaller bite-sized bits but never decomposes as plastic is intended to live virtually forever. Researchers estimate that there are six kilograms of plastic waste in this area for every kilogram of plankton. As it breaks down, it begins to sink and there is a moving blanket at least ten meters deep full of this sludge. From there, unsuspecting wild life sees glinting bits of plastic and mistakes it for food. Eventually the plastic sinks to the ocean floor, where it is mistaken for food by even more animals.

Not only does this plastic accumulate in wildlife, but the plastic itself serves as an absorbent sponge for persistent organic pollutants, hydrocarbons, and DDT that in turn also makes it into the ocean’s organisms.

This is an ecological disaster directly caused by our civilization’s wasteful lifestyle–and yet nobody sees it and few are aware of it because of its remote location. Nevertheless, the pollution brought here is making it farther up the food chain and eventually comes back to haunt us in the food we eat.

All we can do as individuals is realize the consequences of our actions and push our politicians to take action (governments have washed their hands because the problem lies in international waters beyond the reach of any one country). Please recycle–by doing so you ensure the plastic you use never makes it to this ocean graveyard. Never throw garbage into a river or on the ground where it eventually will end up in the water. Best of all, try to use as little plastic as possible.

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