Plastic Soup

A man called Charles Moore takes a sailing short-cut across the doldrums in 1997 on a whim. He sailed into this region, called the North Pacific Gyre and started to notice quite a lot of plastic litter beside his boat – at the start, just small things: bottle tops, bits of crisp packets, pen lids.

Then it started to get busier… bits of plastic, many of them small flakes like fish food, in increasing concentrations. Until the density became so great that there was plastic in the waters all around.

“We were puzzled as to how this plastic got out here. Then began a slow sinking feeling, as we realised that something was very wrong out here.”

It took him seven full days of sailing to cross the gyre, and during the countless miles, the plastic soup didn’t dilute. Sadly this is not a children’s story, but real life: right now there is a collection of plastic particles huge beyond imagination, floating together in the Pacific.

Almost a generation ago NOAA scientists forecast that debris from land and sea would eventually collect in areas where sea currents converge. 50 years ago that waste would have been biodegradable, but now 90% of debris is plastic. And plastic is not good as it does not biodegrade. UV light and friction breaks plastic down into smaller pieces – but it doesn’t ever go away fully. It just gets smaller. And the problem with ecology is that all life is built on foundations of biology (plankton, bacteria, small fish and animals) that are considered very small and numerous too.

The fact is, plastic waste (bags, crisp packets etc that blow away in the wind, or get dropped on the beach) is most likely to end up as tiny flakes and bobbles in the environment, in our rivers and lakes and eventually in our seas. Much of this plastic will be almost invisible to the naked eye – in small flake and pellet form. 

In the Northern Pacific currents converge which results in a big whirlpool-like effect, collecting all this plastic together. There is now an area which is estimated to be around twice the size of France, where the water is now a soup-like consistency of plastic particles and flakes, down to a depth of 10 meters. In fact, recent research vessels that have gone to investigate this huge mass of plastic have found that there is approximately 6 times as much plastic as there is plankton in the water.

The great whales, that feed on plankton, or the fish – and the sea birds that eat them – they eat this stuff, and it kills millions of animals each year. Doing more research on the nearest landfall, scientists tested beaches in Hawaii. They found more plastic grains on the surface than sand to a depth of 1ft, and plastic pollution on beaches has increased by 90% in 10 years globally. [BBC / Charles Moore]

We visited an albatross hatching ground in New Zealand a while back and took this photo – we didn’t realise the significance of it at the time – that these aren’t isolated cases: it’s clear now that this is pollution on a global scale and we didn’t know anything about it.

More recent studies, since Charles Moore’s first trip, have found similar plastic ‘garbage patches’ hundreds of miles across, in all of the world’s oceans – including our Atlantic.

It’s a huge problem, that’s growing. It’s not about trying to do some beach cleans  – the only way ahead is to immediately stop making plastic waste and to do that, we need to redesign our relationship with plastic.

Related Links: Marine Conservation Society & Rapanui

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