‘Islands’ of plastic waste larger than the USA are killing our ocean life

Huge floating ‘garbage patches’ in the Pacific and North Atlantic are a threat to wildlife caused by our consumer culture, says Robert Hume

RETURNING from the Los Angeles-to-Honolulu yacht race in 1997, Captain Charles Moore was guiding his boat through the doldrums.

He noticed, floating in the water, a stretch of plastic debris, including toothbrushes, bottle caps and foam cups.

He was in one of the most remote parts of the world, halfway between California and Hawaii, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, so it was odd to find so much trash.

Winds had brought the debris there from the west coast of North America and from the east coast of Asia.

Due to its exceptionally high level of pollution, oceanographers have named this area the ‘Eastern Garbage Patch’.

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Returning to the area last year, Moore and his team discovered a floating “trash island” with “beaches”, a “rocky coastline”, “underwater mountains” and reefs made from ropes, fishing nets and buoys.

A similar slick of floating plastics in the Atlantic Ocean has been dubbed the ‘North Atlantic Garbage Patch’.

In his new book, Techno-baroque: Useless Technology and other Disasters, Italian geologist, Mario Tozzi, says there are now five such toxic dumps, or “trash vortexes”, including one in the Indian Ocean, “sucking in” refuse like a whirlpool.

British researchers have discovered 1,000 unrecognisable plastic objects washed up on the small island of Dulcie, 9,000kms east of Australia.

How big are these patches?

Even with the aid of satellite photography, no accurate estimates exist for their sizes.

The name ‘garbage patch’ conjures up images of a floating landfill in the middle of the ocean, containing miles of bobbing plastic water bottles and discarded yogurt pots.

One report claims that the ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch’ is as big as the USA.

In reality, much of the debris consists of small bits of plastic about the size of fingernails — “flecks of pepper floating in a bowl of soup”, as a US government department describes it — mostly suspended beneath the water, rather than a “skin of fat” sitting on the surface.

No plastic, whatever its size, should be in our oceans, lakes or rivers, where it causes widespread pollution, takes hundreds of years to decompose, and kills millions of seabirds annually.

Every year, on Midway Atoll, Hawaii, 20 tons of plastic debris is washed up.

Five tons are fed to albatross chicks, about 40% of whom, according to one website (www.inspirationgreen.com), die with their stomachs so stuffed with plastic that they have no room for water or food.

Analysis of plankton in this area shows that it contains six parts toxic plastic to one part zooplankton.

The plastic is eaten by jellyfish, which are then eaten by larger fish, before being consumed by humans — with who knows what consequences.

What can be done?

In March, the EU agreed that, over the next ten years, it would reduce plastic-bag use by 80%. On average, a person uses a staggering 176 plastic bags a year.

New targets will require this amount to be reduced to 90 a year by 2019, and to 40 by 2025. MEPs have hailed the outcome of the vote as a “historic breakthrough”.

Is this possible?

EU member states are expected either to set a limit on their annual consumption of plastic bags or impose a price on them. Ireland has been doing this since 2002; within a year, 90% of consumers were using long-life bags.

In Northern Ireland, plastic-bag usage has fallen by 72% since a 5p levy was introduced last year.

Much damage has been done to our oceans and rivers; the new ruling may, at least, stop the contamination worsening.

But Antidia Citores, from Surfrider Foundation Europe, says it doesn’t go far enough: “Banning single-use plastic bags remains, for us, the best measure and a top priority to limit the adverse impacts of plastic bags on the marine environment”.

It is time for “a change of mindset” across Europe, says Kathleen Van Brempt, MEP.

Consumers need to be nudged into bringing reusable, heavy-duty plastic bags when they go shopping.

And there’s so much more that can be done: supermarkets could bring back paper “carrier” bags?

Can’t we manage without that unnecessary plastic packaging — such as the plastic supports under shirt collars, and the plastic surrounding individual buttons?

Electronic devices, such as USB sticks, are sold in heavy plastic packages that dwarf the object inside.

And do we really need to see spaghetti through a plastic window on the packet?

When we must use plastic, couldn’t we make it from genuinely biodegradable material that decomposes safely and can be used as garden compost?

Ocean “garbage patches” remain an ominous warning of the effect we are having on our planet via our over-reliance on plastic.

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