In January 2016 we reported on a scientific analysis finding that by 2050, there will be more plastic in the oceans than fish. Right now, one garbage truck of plastic is being dumped into the ocean every minute.
This disturbing reality is underscored by the recent discovery of another giant patch of plastic—bigger than Mexico—floating in the South Pacific Sea. It was discovered by Captain Charles Moore, who found the North Pacific Garbage Patch in 1997.
“A team of scientists has confirmed the existence of another ocean garbage patch, this time in a remote area of the South Pacific. Unlike the famous patch in the northern Pacific Ocean, which has long been one of the world’s most recognizable symbols of pollution, the new patch is in an area that had previously been largely unstudied.
The high degree of plastic pollution was uncovered by captain Charles Moore and his team of volunteer researchers on a six-month voyage: 'We discovered tremendous quantities of plastic. My initial impression is that our samples compared to what we were seeing in the North Pacific in 2007, so it’s about ten years behind,' said Moore, who has worked to raise awareness about plastic pollution since he stumbled across the North Pacific patch while captaining a racing yacht in the 1990s. Moore says the southern patch could be as big as a million square kilometers, 1.5 times the size of Texas.”
The size is estimated by collecting samples along transects crossing the study area. This is only the second time plastic pollution has been studied in this remote area, with the first sampling done in 2011. Not much plastic was found in the single transect sampled in 2011, but the latest, more comprehensive study—involving many transects over multiple months—reveals that the South Pacific Gyre has quickly become yet another symbol of the plastic problem.
The South Pacific plastic patch is comprised mostly of microplastic particles resembling confetti. While it’s not as readily visible as other ocean garbage patches, the small size of the plastic particles makes them more of a threat to marine life because the particles are easily swallowed and can accumulate in the gut, while passing along toxins.
One million seabirds die each year from ingesting plastic, and up to 90 percent have plastic in their guts. Microplastic (resulting from the breakdown of larger pieces by sunlight and waves) and microbeads (used in body washes and facial cleansers) are the ocean’s smog. They absorb toxins in the water and enter the food chain, from the smallest plankton to the largest whales, as well as humans.
A healthy ocean ecosystem is essential to the well-being of the human species, and Captain Moore is working to get the message out about his unsettling discovery.
“Having spent so much time there, I feel like an ambassador,” Moore said. “There’s a sense of urgency to get information out about this area, because it’s being destroyed at an enormously accelerated rate. For much of the unexplored ocean, we will never have pre-plastic baseline data.”
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If the threat to ocean ecosystems is not enough to cause alarm, consider that if you eat salt derived from the sea, you are probably eating microplastics.
A study of 17 commercial salt brands from eight different countries found the presence of plastic in all but one brand. The others contained 1 to 10 microplastics/Kg of salt, with the most common being polypropylene.
The study authors note that “the low level of anthropogenic particles intake from the salts warrants negligible health impacts” at the size they studied, but “to better understand the health risks associated with salt consumption, further development in extraction protocols are needed to isolate anthropogenic particles smaller than 149 μm.”
Considering that the rate of plastic being dumped into the ocean is expected to double by 2030 and quadruple by 2050, there is increasing urgency to address this problem. The discovery of the South Pacific plastic patch is the latest alarm bell.
There are solutions.
The New Plastics Economy describes how to move from the ‘take, make, dispose’ economic model to a circular plastics economy, which is both environmentally sustainable and profitable for business.
And let’s not forget, there is an alternative with massive potential which is currently prohibited by federal government: hemp. One of the most useful plants on the planet, hemp has thousands of applications, including making plastic that is biodegradable and non-toxic.
But standard plastic is made from petroleum, and the fossil fuel industry has long had a stranglehold on government and the economy. So hemp—used by humans for thousands of years—was banned by the U.S. government (along with all forms of cannabis), even though it can't get anyone high.
Several states have legalized or are in the process of legalizing the production of hemp, despite federal prohibition. Only days prior to this writing, a bipartisan bill was introduced in the U.S. Congress to legalize industrial hemp nationwide and bring this amazing plant back onto American farmlands.
We need an 'all of the above' approach to combat the fast-growing problem of plastic waste and protect the marine environment that sustains us.