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The great Pacific garbage

Harold Koi
Wednesday, February 20, 2013

THIS may sound monotonous when I say the Nabukalou Creek in Suva's really needs our quick attention and protection, but it's a topic I never get tired of emphasising because pollutants never get tired as well.

The other day I saw a man throw an empty plastic bag from the bridge oblivious to the consequences or maybe just plain ignorant to the environment clean-up campaigns, the vast media reports about keeping the environment clean and efforts by the authorities and non-government organisations.

I was visiting the TappooCity building along Nabukalou Creek that day and counted 10 other ignorant people dump their rubbish especially cigarette buds.

Across from where I was standing, there were two ladies fishing, most probably for their day's dinner.

Just days before that, the Wailei Creek between Raiwaqa and Vatuwaqa in Suva considered as one of the most polluted creeks in my neighbourhood was exposed to sewer waste seeping from an open inspection chamber.

Now here's the bigger picture about rubbish in the Pacific garbage reported by writer and environmental Russell McLendon on

He says a swirling sea of plastic bags, bottles and other debris is growing in the North Pacific, and now another one has been found in the Atlantic. But how did they get there? And is there anything we can do to clean them up?

The report states that not all garbage ends up at the dump. A river, sewer or beach can't catch everything the rain washes away, either. In fact, Earth's largest landfill isn't on land at all.

The great Pacific garbage patch stretches for hundreds of miles across the North Pacific Ocean, forming a nebulous, floating junk yard on the high seas.

It's the poster child for a worldwide problem: plastic bags that starts in human hands end up in the ocean, often inside animals' stomachs or around their necks.

This marine debris has sloshed into the public spotlight recently, thanks to growing media coverage as well as scientists and explorers who are increasingly visiting the North Pacific to see plastic pollution in action.

What's it made of?

The great Pacific garbage patch has sometimes been described as a "trash island," but that's a misconception, says Holly Bamford, director of NOAA's Marine Debris Program. If only things were that simple.

"We could just go out there and scoop up an island," Bamford says. "If it was one big mass, it would make our jobs a whole lot easier."

Instead, it's like a galaxy of garbage, populated by billions of smaller trash islands that may be hidden under water or spread out over many miles. That can make it maddeningly difficult to study — Bamford says we still don't know how big the garbage patch is, despite the oft-cited claim that it's as big as Texas.

"You see these quotes that it's the size of Texas, then it's the size of France, and I even heard one description of it as a continent," she says. "That alone should lend some concern that there's no consistency in our idea of its size.

It's these hot spots, not one big mass. Maybe if you added them all up it's the size of Texas, but we still don't know. It could be bigger than Texas."

While there's still much we don't understand about the garbage patch, we do know that most of it's made of plastic. And that's where the problems begin.

Unlike most other trash, plastic isn't biodegradable i.e., the microbes that break down other substances don't recognise plastic as food, leaving it to float there forever.

Sunlight does eventually "photodegrade" the bonds in plastic polymers, reducing it to smaller and smaller pieces, but that just makes matters worse. The plastic still never goes away; it just becomes microscopic and may be eaten by tiny marine organisms, entering the food chain.

About 80 per cent of debris in the great Pacific garbage patch comes from land, much of which is plastic bags, bottles and various other consumer products. Free-floating fishing nets make up another 10 per cent of all marine litter, or about 705,000 tons, according to UN estimates.

The rest comes largely from recreational boaters, offshore oil rigs and large cargo ships, which drop about 10,000 steel shipping containers into the sea each year, full of things like hockey gloves, computer monitors, resin pellets and LEGOs.

But despite such diversity - and plenty of metal, glass and rubber in the garbage patch — the majority of material is still plastic, since almost everything else sinks or biodegrades before it gets there.

It may take several years for debris to reach this area, depending on its origin. Plastic can be washed from the interiors of continents to the sea via sewers, streams and rivers, or it might simply wash away from the coast. Either way, it can be a six- or seven-year journey before it's spinning around in the garbage patch. On the other hand, fishing nets and shipping containers often fall right in with the rest of the trash.

One of the most famous such debris spills came in 1992, when 28,000 rubber ducks fell overboard in the Pacific Ocean. The ducks continue to turn up on beaches around the world to this day.

What's the problem?

Marine debris threatens environmental health in several ways. Here are the main ones:

* Entanglement: The growing number of abandoned plastic fishing nets is one of the greatest dangers from marine debris. The nets entangle seals, sea turtles and other animals in a phenomenon known as "ghost fishing," often drowning them.

* Small surface debris: Plastic resin pellets are another common piece of marine debris; the tiny, industrial-use granules are shipped in bulk around the world, melted down at manufacturing sites and remolded into commercial plastics.

Photodegradation: As sunlight breaks down floating debris, the surface water thickens with suspended plastic bits. This is bad for a couple of reasons. First, Bamford says, is plastic's "inherent toxicity":

What can we do?

"We need to turn off the taps at the source. We need to educate people on the proper disposal of things that do not break up, like plastics," she says.

"Opportunities for recycling have to increase, but, you know, some people buy three bottles of water a day. As a society, we have to get better at reusing what we buy."

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