Thursday, April 18, 2013

Nash column: Killing the Earth’s oceans

Here’s a riddle, what’s twice the size of Texas, is manmade, and floats? Also, while its parts get smaller, its mass keeps growing. Want another hint?

Look around. Much of what you see is made of plastic. The popularity of plastic packaging, household items, equipment parts and innumerable other things has turned into a serious threat to the planet. Search the web for plastic pollution, using images, to see the masses of plastic debris that cover our Earth and float in our waters.
There are several, gigantic concentrations of plastic bits in every large body of water on Earth, swirled together by the currents, blocking light, attracting harmful chemicals, and being eaten by marine animals. One of them, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, is at least 1,700 miles long. Some reports claim it’s twice as big as the state of Texas. (By the way, that’s the answer to the riddle.)

The plastic comes from all over the world, swept into the oceans through storm drains, rivers and streams, forming enormous islands that float just under the surface of the water. A lot of it makes its way onto beaches where birds like albatross eat it, mistaking it for fish eggs or other food. If they have chicks, they regurgitate it and feed it to their young, so both parents and chicks die of starvation when there is too much in their systems.

Photos of rotten bird carcasses with stomachs full of bottle caps and other plastic bits are available on the Internet. Some of the saddest photos are of seals, sea turtles and other beautiful animals with plastic six-pack bands growing into their bodies.

As plastics break down, they leach oxic chemicals like polyaromatic hydrocarbons that are carcinogenic. Do these chemicals cause health problems in humans when seafood is eaten? Nobody knows, yet. It’s just now being studied.

Even chemical engineers are concerned. At the American Chemical Society’s annual meeting this month, Lorena M. Rios Mendoza reported, “The massive production of plastic and inadequate disposal has made plastic debris an important and constant pollutant on beaches and in oceans around the world, and the Great Lakes are not an exception.”

She went on to explain how the plastic parts break down into very small pieces. “The main problem with these plastic sizes is its accessibility to freshwater organisms that can be easily confused as natural food and the total surface area for absorption of toxins and pseudo-estrogens increases significantly,” she said.
According to a 2008 study by oceanographer and chemist Charles Moore published in the Environmental Research journal, 267 marine species are affected adversely by plastic pollution. Some of these animals mistake undulating plastic grocery bags for squid, their main source of food. When ingested, the bags jam their intestines and cause death.

Plastics don’t just pollute the waters and kill wildlife. They have invaded one of the most beautiful places on Earth. Search the web for “talking-trash-kamilo-beach” to see a startling photograph of what used to be a beautiful, pristine beach in Hawaii. It is covered by 2 feet of plastic debris. But it’s not just the big stuff that has invaded their beaches. Conservationists say that more than 50 percent of the “sand” on Hawaii’s beaches actually are tiny plastic pellets.

Plastic bottles and bags make up a large part of the garbage that’s littering our land, lakes and seas. In fact, water bottles are one of the biggest sources of plastic pollution, an excellent reason to shun bottled water.
This week I checked out the Baraboo River that runs through lower Ochsner Park. The high water and furious current already had flushed away most of the debris along its banks. Still, in only a 30-foot section, I saw 10 plastic bottles bobbing along offshore. There were some aluminum cans and several bits of Styrofoam, but bottles made up the majority of the litter. Much of this will make its way to the Wisconsin River, then to the Mississippi, and finally into the ocean.

We’ll never give up plastics altogether, but to minimize pollution, we have to dispose of all plastic products in a responsible way. We need to pick up litter and insist everyone in our households use the recycling bin. We can’t solve the problem by ourselves, but we don’t have to add to it, either.

Source: Wisc News. Author: Pat Nash

Image courtesy of lyng883 via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)