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Friday, April 1, 2011

Plastification of our seas

Plastic... where to begin? Call me Ishmael? No, that's been done before. Given the size of the problem though, it seems only fitting to make leviathan references. Instead, I'll start at what is clearly the logical starting point for such a discussion: a picture of a sea turtle.
Green sea turtle - chilling out in the weeds (Photo:

 A green sea turtle, to be precise. This turtle was recently in the news when an examination of a juvenile captured off Argentina revealed it had a belly full of plastic debris. This is a common problem for sea turtles as outlined in a Marine Turtle Newsletter editorial. Young turtles often find themselves in the same places as floating plastic debris, and being indiscriminate eaters, they scarf down large quantities this garbage (real garbage, that is, not the kind John eats while he's blogging). Between their high-plastic diet and entanglement in abandoned fishing gear, marine debris can lead to young turtles' untimely demise.

The problem of marine debris doesn't just affect turtles though. As I mentioned last time, larger pieces of debris pose a grave threat to seabirds and marine mammals around the world. A recent study on the BC coast estimated that there are about 36,000 pieces of man-made marine debris (fist-size or larger) floating around our waters. When you consider pieces smaller than that, it quickly becomes apparent that this is just the tip of the iceberg. An expedition by researchers at the 5 Gyres Institute to the south Atlantic subtropical gyre found tiny flakes of plastic in every single trawl, and these samples couldn't capture the even smaller particles suspended in the water. These are a more tempting size for fish and invertebrates, which means they (or the chemical pollutants that concentrate on them) will probably end up in those of us who like seafood.

So what to do? Participants of the 5th International Marine Debris Conference in Hawaii spent a good deal of time discussing this last week, which resulted in the Honolulu Commitment. This is the first step towards a global strategy to reduce and manage marine debris. However, there are some major challenges with regulating pollution in an environment which is not only mind-bogglingly vast, but also exists mostly outside the jurisdiction of any one government.
The whole idea of limiting our waste flies in the face of today's disposable culture. As long as we continue to produce large quantities of plastic junk that is destined to be thrown away, our oceans will continue to be filled with plastic. As long as people continue to buy that junk, it will still be produced..

Anyway, not to end on a down note, here's some cool marine-debris-related links. I mentioned the 5 Gyres Institute Earlier, who study marine debris around the world. You can follow their research through their blog. Sara Bayles, whose blog on marine debris collection (The Daily Ocean) I've been following for the past several months, is joining them on their current expedition.

On a related note, I recently became aware of an up-and-coming clothing company in the States called United By Blue. For every item they sell, UBB removes one pound of garbage from the ocean, beaches and waterways (and unlike other companies, they don't just pay someone else to do it).

And those are just a few. With dumping of garbage into the ocean estimated to be as high as eight million items per day, these groups have their work cut out for them.

1 comment:

  1. thanks for the link to UBB. There some lovely things in their store. Unfortunately, all the pretty ones are sold out :'(