Sunday, December 23, 2012

Plastics in the Pacific: Why is there plastic in the ocean?

Kim McCabe is a Visitor Education Specialist at the New England Aquarium. She recently returned from an expedition in the North Pacific ocean studying plastic debris and its impact on the marine ecosystem. She'll be sharing some of her observations and reactions through the coming over the coming days.

Let's start out by closing your eyes and trying to imagine a world without plastic.

Having trouble? It’s hard. The stuff is everywhere! How would we brush our teeth, store our food or use the internet without plastic? Yet, plastics are relatively new to human culture. Talk to your grandparents and they can tell you about a world with milkmen, glass bottles and food wrapped in wax paper. The smorgasbord of cheap plastic goods we find around us today, from toys to bags and bottles, are the products of “throw away living”, the ideal of disposability that didn’t pop up until the 1950s.  Now, Americans go through two million plastic soda bottles every five minutes! The amount of waste we create is staggering. So where does it all go?

Plastic debris recovered from the Pacific Ocean

Every piece of plastic we have ever made is still with us today. Some, inevitably, ends up in the ocean.  When it does it usually congregates in one of the five major gyres, or rotating ocean currents. As coastal and equatorial currents rotate around these gyres the middle, like the eye of a storm, remains calm. Once plastic gets there, it doesn’t leave.

We think that the majority of ocean plastic comes from land. Any walk through Boston will tell you that our waste disposal system is not perfect. Trash barrels overflow, bottles lay discarded on curbs, and plastic bags blow like tumbleweeds through the streets. This plastic works its way into storm drains and rivers, which all lead to the sea. Other sources include offshore activities (military, fishing, drilling, etc.) and natural disasters (tsunamis, hurricanes, etc.). In addition, it was completely legal to dump plastic in the ocean until 1988!

Our expedition headed to the middle of the North Pacific Gyre to take a closer look at this mid-ocean plastic. Coming up, how do you look for plastics in the middle of the ocean?

Plastics in the ocean has been covered on Aquarium blogs several times, unfortunately. Learn about finding plastic debris on remote Indonesian reefs, in the open waters around Costa Rica, around islands in the Bahamas and learn how some people in Dominica are learning to reduce, reuse and recycle.

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