Water is essential to all life, and the Earth is 75% water. The Industrial Revolution increased industrial pollution, increased temperatures and increased oceanic trash. The danger of plastic in our oceans, rivers and streams has been both disputed and downplayed in the media. As environmental activists fight to increase awareness of climate change and rising temperatures, a looming threat to the oceans is growing.
A gyre is a rotational current in the oceans driven by wind patterns. The gyres draw in discarded plastics. The North Atlantic, South Atlantic, North Pacific, Indian, and the most recently discovered South Pacific Oceans’ gyres have spawned massive floating garbage patches. As predicted by marine scientists, swirling masses of debris largely composed of particles of plastic and industrial waste, form floating destructive garbage islands. The tangled plastic patches rival the area of Texas. Some gyres are estimated at sizes ranging from 700,000 square kilometers (270,000 square mi) to more than 15,000,000 square kilometers (5,800,000 square mi), or 0.41% to 8.1% the size of the Pacific Ocean.
The problem of oceanic trash first came to the public attention in 1972 when Edward J. Carpenter and K.L. Smith Jr. published Plastics on the Sargasso Sea Surface, their groundbreaking research on marine pollution. The majority of the waste originates on the shorelines and the remainder comes from industrial and recreational boats and ocean liners. The newly discovered South Pacific Gyre has furthered concerned calls for action from The 5 Gyres Institute.
The industrial benefits of plastic, like its flexibility and durability, also make it largely non-biodegradable. The plastic islands are made of plastic litter and industrial waste that disintegrate into into microscopic particles. Once discarded from shorelines and off the sides of ocean liners and shipping vessels, the litter travels with the gyre currents to the garbage islands.
The plastic destroys the entrails of birds and entangles endangered turtles in skin-cutting death traps as the chemicals insidiously travel up the food chain. Many consumers are unaware of the hidden danger of plastic packaging for regularly consumed food, from frozen vegetables to bottled water. With few packaging options, most consumers have limited alternatives for avoiding common plastic pollution.
Bisphenol-A (BPA) is a chemical compound that can break down with organic solvents, but is not easily dissolved in water. BPAs are added to industrial plastics for flexibility. Research indicates that BPAs are highly toxic and not be used in infant and children’s toys, bottles or other items. Scientists recently documented that all species of living mammals, including blue whales, have traces of BPAs in breast milk. In July 2012 the Food and Drug Administration imposed a Federal Ban on BPAs in baby bottles. BPAs mimic synthetic estrogen and have been linked to poor sperm quality, endocrine disruption, compromised brain development and increased risk of cancer. This overdue legislation from our governmental agencies is an encouraging step forward, but more action is needed at the federal level.
Industrialization has a long history of sacrificing the health of the environment for the sake of short-term profits. Still, the picture is not all doom and gloom. Efforts are currently underway from scientists and activists dedicated to a complicated clean-up. Researchers have begun more seriously strategies to remove the plastic, but the plastic disintegrates to the molecular level and is nearly impossible to extract from the water without also disturbing small hatching aquatic eggs.
Marine life, including the smallest fish and squid eggs, are also filtered in the clean-up process at the same rate risking extinction of many species. Alternately, the species that thrive in the increasingly acidified waters are often predatory and detrimental to less adaptable aquatic species. This variable also threatens increased extinction rates to vulnerable marine life.
Aquatic pollution solutions involve transforming destructive human behaviors into restorative actions. Reducing these environmental threats involves demands for better education and conscious efforts to improve our relationship with the natural world. Moving from hand wringing to effective solutions is gaining steam, but still resisted by a sleep-walking public.
Recycling can reduce some impact of plastic on our natural resources, but prevention is always better than the cure. It is not always intuitive to carry travel mugs or recycle., but the consequences of chucking the occasional fast food bag onto the highway are being seen and felt closer to home as we run out of new horizons to trash. As the data show, plastic pollution gradually returns to our collective doorsteps.