When The Mermaids Cry: The Great Plastic Tide
This is a heartbreaking subject when you realize the effects of wasteful, wanton irresponsibility and unconscious recklessness. The article below following the video is a must view, even if only to see the pictures. The shocking reality of what is happening to our planet is beyond comprehension. Thankfully the vibrant loving beauty of nature helps soothe our souls, but the challenge before us is daunting.
This video, referred to in the story below, is about Midway island which is 2000 km from any other coast line. Nobody lives there, only birds. Yet what you will see here is shocking and very upsetting. – Zen
When The Mermaids Cry: The Great Plastic Tide
The world population is living, working, vacationing, increasingly conglomerating along the coasts, and standing on the front row of the greatest, most unprecedented, plastic waste tide ever faced.
Washed out on our coasts in obvious and clearly visible form, the plastic pollution spectacle blatantly unveiling on our beaches is only the prelude of the greater story that unfolded further away in the world’s oceans, yet mostly originating from where we stand: the land.
In 2008, our global plastic consumption worldwide has been estimated at 260 million tons. Plastic is versatile, lightweight, flexible, moisture resistant, strong, and relatively inexpensive. Those are the attractive qualities that lead us, around the world, to such a voracious appetite and over-consumption of plastic goods. However, durable and very slow to degrade, plastic materials that are used in the production of so many products all, ultimately, become waste with staying power. Our tremendous attraction to plastic, coupled with an undeniable behavioral propensity of increasingly over-consuming, discarding, littering and thus polluting, has become a combination of lethal nature.
African coast marine debris. Photo: Candace Feit
A simple walk on any beach, anywhere, and the plastic waste spectacle is present. All over the world the statistics are ever growing, staggeringly. Tons and tons of plastic debris (which by definition are waste that can vary in size from large containers, fishing nets to microscopic plastic pellets or even particles) is discarded every year, everywhere, polluting lands, rivers, coasts, beaches, and oceans. Last year, an estimated 150,000 tons of marine plastic debris ended up on the shores of Japan and 300 tons a day on India’s coasts.>
Lying halfway between Asia and North America, north of the Hawaiian archipelago, and surrounded by water for thousands of miles on all sides, the Midway Atoll is about as remote as a place can get. However, Midways’ isolation has not spared it from the great plastic tide either, receiving massive quantities of plastic debris, shot out from the North Pacific circular motion of currents (gyre). Midways’ beaches, covered with large debris and millions of plastic particles in place of the sand, are suffocating, envenomed by the slow plastic poison continuously washing ashore.
Then, on shore, the spectacle becomes even more poignant, as thousands of bird corpses rest on these beaches, piles of colorful plastic remaining where there stomachs had been. In some cases, the skeleton had entirely biodegraded; yet the stomach-size plastic piles are still present, intact. Witnesses have watched in horror seabirds choosing plastic pieces, red, pink, brown and blue, because of their similarity to their own food. It is estimated that of the 1.5 million Laysan Albatrosses which inhabit Midway, all of them have plastic in their digestive system; for one third of the chicks, the plastic blockage is deadly, coining Midway Atoll as “albatross graveyards” by five media artists, led by photographer Chris Jordan, who recently filmed and photographed the catastrophic effects of the plastic pollution there.
Albatross, victim of plastic ingestion. Photo: Unknown.
From the whale, sea lions, and birds to the microscopic organisms called zooplankton, plastic has been, and is, greatly affecting marine life on shore and off shore. In a 2006 report, Plastic Debris in the World’s Oceans, Greenpeace stated that at least 267 different animal species are known to have suffered from entanglement and ingestion of plastic debris. According to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, plastic debris kills an estimated 100,000 marine mammals annually, as well as millions of birds and fishes.
The United Nations Joint Group of Experts on the Scientific Aspects of Marine Pollution (GESAMP), estimated that land-based sources account for up to 80 percent of the world’s marine pollution, 60 to 95 percent of the waste being plastics debris.
However, most of the littered plastic waste worldwide ultimately ends up at sea. Swirled by currents, plastic litter accumulates over time at the center of major ocean vortices forming “garbage patches”, i.e. larges masses of ever-accumulating floating debris fields across the seas. The most well known of these “garbage patches” is the Great North Pacific Garbage Patch, discovered and brought to media and public attention in 1997 by Captain Charles Moore. Yet some others large garbage patches are highly expected to be discovered elsewhere, as we’ll see further.
The plastic waste tide we are faced with is not only obvious for us to clearly see washed up on shore or bobbing at sea. Most disconcertingly, the overwhelming amount and mass of marine plastic debris is beyond visual, made of microscopic range fragmented plastic debris that cannot be just scooped out of the ocean.
Slow, silent, omnipresent, ever increasing, more toxic than previously thought, the plastic pollution’s reality bears sobering consequences, as recently unveiled by the report of Japanese chemist Katsuhiko Saido at the 238th National Meeting of the American Chemical Society (ACS) in August 2009 and the findings from the Project Kaisei and Scripps (Seaplex) scientific cruise-expeditions collecting seawater samples from the Great Garbage Patch. Both, the reports and expeditions uncovered new evidence of how vast and “surprisingly” (as it was termed at the ACS meeting) toxic the plastic presence in the marine environment is.
Photo: Kuta Beach, Bali by Claude Graves
Environmentalists have long denounced plastic as a long-lasting pollutant that does not fully break down, in other terms, not biodegradable. In 2004, a study lead by Dr Richard Thompson at the University of Plymouth, UK, reported finding great amount of plastic particles on beaches and waters in Europe, the Americas, Australia, Africa and Antarctica. They reported that small plastic pellets called “mermaids tears”, which are the result of industry and domestic plastic waste, have indeed spread across the world’s seas. Some plastic pellets had fragmented to particles thinner than the diameter of a human hair. But while some cannot be seen, those pieces are still there and are still plastic. They are not absorbed into the natural system, they just float around within it, and ultimately are ingested by marine animals and zooplankton (Plankton that consists of tiny animals, such as rotifers, copepods, and krill, larger animals eggs and larvae’s and of microorganisms once classified as animals, such as dinoflagellates and other protozoans.). This plastic micro-pollution, with its inherent toxicity and consequences on the food chain, had yet to be studied…
Dr Saido’s study was the first one to look at what actually happens over the years to these tons of plastic waste floating in the world’s oceans. The study presents an alarming fact: these tons of plastic waste reputed to be virtually indestructible, do decompose with surprising speed, at much lower temperature than previously thought possible, and release toxic substances into the seawater, namely bisphenol A (BPA) and PS oligomer. These chemicals are considered toxic and can be metabolized subsequent to ingestion, leading Dr Saido to state “…plastics in the ocean will certainly give rise to new sources of global contaminations that will persist long into the future”.
This past August a different study, from a group of oceanography students from Scripps Institution of Oceanography (SIO), UCSD, accompanied by the international organization Project Kaisei’s team, embarked on two vessels, New Horizon and Kaisei, through the North Pacific Ocean to sample plastic debris and garbage. SIO director Tony Haymet described the trip as “ …a forage into the great plastic garbage patch in the north.” To summarize the scientific data collected on the ship, Miriam Goldstein, chief scientist on New Horizon, stated: “We did find debris… coming up in our nets in over 100 consecutive net tows over a distance of 1,700 miles… It is pretty shocking.” She said, “[There is] not a big island, not a garbage dump [that we] can really see easily.” She described it more as a place where large debris floats by a ship only occasionally, but a lot of tiny pieces of plastic exist below the surface of the water. “Ocean pretty much looks like ocean,” she said. “The plastic fragments are mostly less than a quarter inch long and are below the surface. It took at first a magnifying-glass to see the true extent of plastic damage in the North Pacific.”
The overwhelmingly largest unquantifiable plastic mass is just made of confetti-like fragmented pieces of plastic.
In a press conference in September 2009, the director of the California Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC), Maziar Movassaghi, referring to Project Kaisei’s findings, held a small glass bottle filled with seawater sampled at the Great North Garbage Patch. Inside was murky seawater with hundreds of fragmented plastics pieces: “That is what we have to stop”.
All sea creatures, from the largest to the microscopic organisms, are, at one point or another, swallowing the seawater soup instilled with toxic chemicals from plastic decomposition. The world population “… (is) eating fish that have eaten other fish, which have eaten toxin-saturated plastics. In essence, humans are eating their own waste.” (Dixit Renee Brown, WiredPress).
Photo: Manan Vastsyayana
The scientists from Project Kaisei and Scripps hope their data gives clues as to the density and extent of these debris, especially since the Great Pacific Garbage Patch might have company in the Southern Hemisphere, where scientists say the gyre is four times bigger.” We’re afraid at what we’re going to find in the South Gyre, but we’ve got to go there,” said Tony Haymet.
The “Silent World” is shedding mermaid tears. A plastic-poison has undeniably been instilled by us, prompting an unwilling and illegitimate confrontation of two titans: one synthetic (plastic), the other oceanic. The crisis is of massive proportion. An unprecedented plastic tide has occurred, pervasively affecting the world’s oceans, beaches, coasts, seafloor, animals and ultimately, us.
I: The Great Plastic Tide: Magnitude, Scope, Extent
A full understanding of the magnitude and scope of this plastic pollution starts with clear definitions as to what and why it is happening. Thus, we will define the notions of marine debris, gyres, and oceanic garbage patches, or giant floating marine debris field, as first discovered in the North Pacific by Captain Charles Moore’s, since referred to as The Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GGP).
Marine Debris and Plastic
Krichim, Boat in plastic, April 25, 2009. Photo: Dimitar Dilkoff
The term marine debris has been used for at least 25 years to refer to man-made materials that have been discarded or lost into the ocean. The earliest references come from the 1984 Workshop on the Impacts and Fate of Marine Debris (Shomura and Yoshida 1985). This workshop came out of a 1982 request from the Marine Mammal Commission to the National Marine Fisheries Service to examine the impacts of marine debris. At that time, the focus of research was primarily on derelict fishing gear. Keep in mind that this was prior to the implementation of both the high-seas driftnet ban and MARPOL Annex V.
Other terms used prior to 1984 include the following: man-made debris (Feder et all 1978), synthetic debris (Balazs 1979), plastic litter (Merrell 1980), floating plastic debris (Morris 1980), man-made objects (Shaughnessy 1980, Venrick et al 1973), and debris (Scordino and Fisher 1983).
It would appear that the term debris was being used in these articles by academics as something discarded: litter.
Photo: ©© Jan Vozenilek-05-0924 / The Midway Journey
The term marine debris encompasses more than plastic, including metals (derelict vessels, dumped vehicles, beverage containers), glass (light bulbs, beverage containers, older fishing floats), and other materials (rubber, textiles, lumber). Plastic certainly makes up the majority of floating litter, but in some areas the debris on the ocean floor may contain sizeable amounts of those other denser types.
Scientists have similarly and more simply defined marine debris as, any manufactured or processed solid waste material that enters the ocean environment from any source (Coe & Rogers, 1997). Marine debris is definitely characterized as human-created waste that has deliberately or accidentally become afloat. They tend to accumulate at the centre of gyres and on coastlines, frequently washing aground where it is known as beach litter.
The US Congress passed a bill in 2006, The Marine Debris Research, Prevention, and Reduction Act, to create a program to address the marine debris pollution. One of the requirements in the bill was for NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) and the U.S. Coast Guard, to promulgate a definition of marine debris for the purposes of the Act. Thus, USCG and NOAA drafted and published a definition of marine debris in September 2009. The definition is this: “Any persistent solid material that is manufactured or processed and directly or indirectly, intentionally or unintentionally, disposed of or abandoned into the marine environment or the Great Lakes.” Marine debris can come in many forms, from a plastic soda bottle to a derelict vessel. Types and components of marine debris include plastics, glass, metal, Styrofoam, rubber, derelict fishing gear, and derelict vessels.
UNEP has defined marine debris, or marine litter, as “any persistent, manufactured, processed, or solid material discarded, disposed of, or abandoned in the marine and coastal environment.” This is an even more global and comprehensive definition, as it does include the marine and correlated coastal impact of the aforementioned litter.
Photo: ©© Jan Vozenilek-03-0771 / The Midway Journey
As we mentioned supra, land-based sources of debris account for up to 80 percent of the world’s marine pollution. Such debris is unquestionably one of the world’s most pervasive pollution problems affecting our beaches, coasts, oceans, seafloors, inland waterways and lands. It affects the economies and inhabitants of coastal and waterside communities worldwide. The effect of coastal littering is obviously compounded by vectors, such as rivers and storm drains, discharging litter from inland urban areas. Obviously, ocean current patterns, climate and tides, and proximity to urban centers, industrial and recreational areas, shipping lanes, and commercial fishing grounds influence the types and amount of debris that is found in the open ocean or collected along beaches, coasts and waterways, above and below the water’s edge.
The other 20 percent of this debris is from dumping activities on the water, including vessels (from small power and sailboats to large transport ships carrying people and goods), offshore drilling rigs and platforms, and fishing piers.
Over the past 60 years, organic materials, once the most common form of debris, have yielded to synthetic elements as the most abundant material in solid waste. Marine litter is now 60 to 80 percent plastic, reaching 95 percent in some areas, according to a report by the Algalita Marine Research Foundation (created by Charles Moore), published in October 2008 in Environmental Research.
Citarum River, flowing to the Sea, is the main source of houselhold water for Jakarta.(14million people). Photo source: photobucket
Around and around, worldwide, at distant seas, or merely bobbing among the waves before washing up ultimately on shore, a daily and ever too common plastic spectacle is unveiled: bottles, plastic bags, fishnets, clothing, lighters, tires, polystyrene, containers, plastics shoes, just a myriad of man-made items, all sharing a common origin: us.
“Plastics are a contaminant that goes beyond the visual” - Bill Henry of the Long Marine Laboratory, UCSC.