Remember our post about the trash continent spiralling in the Pacific? Apparently it’s one of five gyres where plastic and other rubbish collects, swirled together by ocean currents. It’s also a relatively unresearched problem. The heart of it is plastic waste, from the vast quantities of packaging and trinkets that we use and throw away every day, from disposable coffee stirrers to carrier bags, bottle tops, lighters, cable ties and a thousand other things. Most of this waste is landfilled or incinerated, with around 5% worldwide recycled. Some of it just gets released into the wild and ends up as flotsam.
The trouble with plastic is that it isn’t biodegradable. It kicks around in the environment for decades, maybe longer – it hasn’t been around for long enough for us to work out how long it takes to break down. In the sea, the sunlight breaks it down into small pieces that float just below the surface. Over the years, it accumulates into drifting, liquid masses. The plastic shards are eaten by fish, seabirds and turtles. We don’t yet know what effect, if any, this plastic contamination will have on human health, through the seafood that we eat.
The 5 gyres project has been set up to find out more about plastic waste in the sea – how it gets there, what it does, and what we can do about it. They have a great website, full of useful and well presented information. They are currently making their way around all five gyres, some of which have not been surveyed before. You can follow their progress on the blog.
Of course, the only real solution is cutting down our own use of plastic. There has been plenty of attention given to plastic bags, but that’s only the tip of the iceberg. To look at reducing your own plastic use, The Book of Rubbish Ideas is a useful place to start.