Taken from this episode of Fresh Air on NPR. One of the most important pieces I’ve heard in a while, and wholly worth listening to in it’s entirety.
If you aren’t brought to the point of almost vomiting or tears at the sheer fact that there is now currently plastic covering a larger section of the ocean than DRY LAND, (and that it’s only been around for 40 years) well…I just don’t know about you.
GROSS: If you’re just joining us, my guest is Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Edward Humes. His new book is called “Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair With Trash.”
We’ve been talking about landfill kind of trash. It’s really awful to say here that the sea is filled with trash, too, and you write about the Pacific Garbage Patch, which is one of five gyres, like vortexes, in which trash is, kind of, sucked in, and it doesn’t get out. Why don’t you describe the Pacific Garbage Patch, its size and what’s trapped in it.
HUMES: Well, it’s really an immense swath of ocean, deep sea, and it’s been depicted in some reports as this floating landfill. And I, you know, naturally picture big hunks of trash and bottles floating and, you know, the kind of debris we put in trash cans is I think how a lot of people have envisioned this garbage patch.
And there is some of that, but that’s not really the real problem. That would actually be better if it was that because it would be potentially something we could clean up. What we’re actually seeing in the ocean, and we’re talking about many miles from land, is this kind of chowder of plastic, these tiny particles that are the size of plankton, plastic that has been weathered and broken down by the elements into these little bits, and it’s getting into the food chain.
You know, fish feed on plankton, and other fish feed on those fish and then it moves on up the chain. And these scientists I write about from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography went out and did these trawls where they were taking in lantern fish, which is - they’re very prevalent, small fish that eat plankton and are an important link in the food chain.
And they opened them up, and the found that something like 10 percent of the fish that they caught had lots of plastic inside there, in their digestive tracks. And that’s…
GROSS: So they’re eating the plastic as they eat the plankton, is that the problem?
HUMES: Yeah, or they think it’s plankton. It looks like plankton. I mean, these are not, you know, brain-surgeon creatures. They’re used to feeding on these particles, these organic particles near the surface of the ocean, and the plastics kind of looks like what they’re used to eating, and down the hatch it goes.
The other problem is that there’s a lot of toxics, chemicals, that find their way into the ocean, and many of these are not really water-soluble. So they’re in the marine environment, but chemically they’re always looking for something to latch onto. And this weathered plastic that’s kind of been corroded and has a lot of rough edges and pocks from being in the ocean and being exposed to sun is -becomes like a sponge for these chemicals.
And so the fear is that along with ingesting plastic, these important fish in the food chain are also ingesting all these chemical substances, and the research that’s going on now is trying to determine how much of that is working its way into the fish that we eat, that humans eat.
It’s an unknown right now, but we do know that there’s a lot of plastic produced that find its way into the ocean. I estimated, based upon the four million tons that it’s estimated that we lose track of - in terms of the plastic we make versus what gets thrown away - it’s like we were losing 40 aircraft carriers a year at sea, in terms of the weight of plastic that’s being lost in the ocean.
GROSS: So these five gyres that have become a vortex of trash, these garbage patches, they’re in the Indian Ocean, the South Atlantic, the North Atlantic, South Pacific and North Pacific. You say together they encompass about 40 percent of the global ocean surface, **and that’s more territory of the Earth than all the dry land put together.** That’s a huge amount of trash in the ocean.
HUMES: It’s huge, it is.
GROSS: And you also write that a lot of - like some of the plastic is what’s called nurdles. What are the nurdles?
HUMES: Nurdles are sort of proto-plastic. It’s these pellets of plastic that are the building blocks of virtually every plastic product you could think of. And manufacturers like these nurdles because they’re so tiny you can pour them almost like a fluid. And they go - you know, you pour them into rail cars or into tanker trucks, and they go from the nurdle manufacturer to other companies that make finished products out of plastic and melt them down…
GROSS: So like they melt these nurdles down and make, like, bottles out of them or whatever?
HUMES: Exactly, but they are very - I mean because they’re so tiny, they tend to get away, you know? And there’s spills, and they blow away, and they wash away. And so you can walk on almost any beach in the world and find nurdles. I went down to the beach here in Southern California, and you cannot walk around the sand and not find bits of plastic and these little nurdles. I never noticed it before.
You know, you see these little bits of color in the sand, and you think oh, pretty shells. And then you look closely, and it’s not shells, it’s plastic. And I challenge anyone who’s listening to us to go to their nearest beach, and you will - if you look, you will find plastic. And if it’s on the beach, it’s there because it washed up on the beach, and that means it’s in the water.
GROSS:So, you know, it’s just hard to remember that like in the history of trash, plastic is really pretty recent so our difficulties in dealing with it are pretty recent.
HUMES: Yeah. I mean it’s - the funny thing is that it was going to be the great savior of the environment because look, we can make billiard balls out of and piano keys out of plastic instead of ivory and we’re look, you know, this is going to be a great thing for nature. That was the original idea behind, you know, plastic being this miracle substance and it’s had so many great uses. And, but those initial applications weren’t for disposable stuff. It was for long-lasting products, things that would, you know, be heirlooms and still are. You know, some of the original plastic products were made out of this material called Bakelite, you know, these old phones and these beautiful old Art Deco radios, they’re like, you know, wonderful antiques and works of art now. So plastic was originally a very different substance than what we have now, which is this idea of disposable products made out of plastic that once were made out of more durable materials. And that’s where we’re running into a problem because you’re making very temporary, very ephemeral things out of a material that lasts forever.
- Shock, horror and emphasis are mine.
An animation of the projected path of debris from the Japan tsunami over the next five years, based on the model developed by researchers at the University of Hawaii. Credit: International Pacific Research Center.
There will be virtually nothing left to fish from the seas by the middle of the century if current trends continue, according to a major scientific study.
Stocks have collapsed in nearly one-third of sea fisheries, and the rate of decline is accelerating.
Writing in the journal Science, the international team of researchers says fishery decline is closely tied to a broader loss of marine biodiversity.
But a greater use of protected areas could safeguard existing stocks.
“The way we use the oceans is that we hope and assume there will always be another species to exploit after we’ve completely gone through the last one,” said research leader Boris Worm, from Dalhousie University in Canada.
“What we’re highlighting is there is a finite number of stocks; we have gone through one-third, and we are going to get through the rest,” he told the BBC News website.
Steve Palumbi, from Stanford University in California, one of the other scientists on the project, added: “Unless we fundamentally change the way we manage all the ocean species together, as working ecosystems, then this century is the last century of wild seafood.”
(and while there is some dispute over the “50 years” quote, there is almost none about it failing signifigantly within this century.)