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Thread: We In Danger, Girl, Part I: The Great Pacific Garbage Patch

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    Elite Member BITTER's Avatar
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    Default We In Danger, Girl, Part I: The Great Pacific Garbage Patch



    Great Pacific Garbage Patch

    Transcript

    This is Making Waves from NOAA's National Ocean Service. I'm Troy Kitch. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch. I bet you've heard of it. It's a phrase that's really caught on in the past few years. And it's easy to see why: it conjures up a powerful image ... a vast vortex of human waste plastic bags, tires, cans, barrels, you name it ... floating out there in the ocean. But here's the thing: it doesn't really look like that at all. What it looks like to the human eye, from satellites, is, for the most part, well ... not much at all. Most of it is all but invisible. How can that be? Well, I recently sat down with Dianna Parker from the NOAA Marine Debris Program to find out what the garbage patch is and isn't, what we know and don't know, and what we can do about this ocean-sized problem. Dianna, welcome and thanks for joining us. Let's start with the obvious question: what are we talking about when we say 'garbage patch?'
    [Dianna Parker] A lot of people hear the word patch and they immediately think of almost like a blanket of trash that can easily be scooped up, but actually these areas are always moving and changing with the currents, and it's mostly these tiny plastics that you can't immediately see with the naked eye."
    I noticed that you said garbage patch 'areas.' So the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is only one area in the ocean where marine debris concentrates?
    [Dianna Parker] "There are garbage patches all over the world. These are areas where debris naturally accumulates. So there are garbage patches of all different sizes and shapes and compositions. The one that we know the most about is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch which lies in an area between Hawaii and California. What we know about this area is that it's made up of tiny micro plastics, almost akin to a peppery soup, with scattered larger items, fishing gear, those kind of items swirling around."
    A peppery soup? Could you explain that again?
    [Dianna Parker] "Well, imagine tiny, tiny micro plastics just swirling around, mixing in the water column from waves and wind, that's always moving and changing with the currents. These are tiny plastics that you might not even see if you sailed through the middle of the garbage patch, they're so small and mixed throughout the water column."
    I would think that most of the plastics that ends up in the ocean are bigger pieces ... like bags and bottles and plastic toys. But you're saying that most of the plastic is so small that's it's hard or impossible to see. Can you talk a little more about the plastic debris in the ocean ... why it's so small?
    [Dianna Parker] "There are many different kinds of plastics out in the ocean and they come from a number of different sources. So, there are teeny, tiny micro plastics out there that were either manufactured to be small for example, the microbeads in face wash can be plastic; there are also little, tiny plastic pellets that we sometimes call 'nurdles' that are used to make larger items but then there are also tiny plastics that are shards of larger items. Plastics never really go away. They just break down over and over and over again until they become smaller and smaller from sunlight and other environmental factors [like] waves, big storms, those kind of things."
    So we have these vast regions in the ocean where the water column looks like a peppery soup because of all these small bits and pieces of plastic. I would imagine this plastic kind of looks like food. Do we know if fish and birds are eating this stuff?
    [Dianna Parker] "We know that some species of birds and fish eat micro plastics. They even eat some larger plastics. So for example, the Laysan Albatross in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, we know that just about every dead albatross found on Midway Atoll has some form of plastic in its stomach. We don't know if that's what killed it, but we know that this is becoming a big problem. So we know that there are micro plastics in the ocean. We know that birds and fish and even some larger marine mammals eat these plastics. We know there are chemicals in the plastics and we know that the chemicals can absorb other toxic chemicals that are floating around in the ocean. So now the big question is, what are those plastics doing to the animals that eat them."
    I'm sure you get this question a lot: we know marine debris in the ocean is a bad thing ... so why don't we just clean it up? Especially if most of the trash is contained in 'garbage patch' areas because of the way the debris naturally accumulates because of ocean currents.
    [Dianna Parker] "The words 'garbage patch' accurately describes what it is, because these are patches of ocean that contain our garbage. But they're not areas where you can easily go through and skim trash off the surface. First of all, because they are tiny micro plastics that aren't easily removable from the ocean. But also just because of the size of this area. We did some quick calculations that if you tried to clean up less than one percent of the North Pacific Ocean it would take 67 ships one year to clean up that portion. And the bottom line is that until we prevent debris from entering the ocean at the source, it's just going to keep congregating in these areas. We could go out and clean it all up and then still have the same problem on our hands as long as there's debris entering the ocean."
    And that's really the big problem to prevent the debris from entering the ocean in the first place. So what can you, me, or anyone do to help?
    [Dianna Parker] "There's so much that we can do to keep debris from entering the ocean. It's as simple as changing your individual behavior every day, creating less waste, reusing what you can, remembering to recycle ... littering is obviously a no-no. And then going out and joining a beach clean up. It's difficult to really understand the problem until you get out there and see it first-hand, how bad the problem is."
    And I imagine you've had plenty of opportunities to go out there and see how bad it is first-hand.
    [Dianna Parker] "I absolutely have. For example, every year I go out with the International Coastal Cleanup and work to pick up trash from the Anacostia and Potomac in Washington, DC, and the amount of trash you find on the shorelines is just incredible. Bottles, bags, aerosol cans, all mixed together. In some places it's like a thick mat. And so these are really populous, urban areas. But then we also see the same kind of trash on really remote beaches. For example, I was on beach in Lanai in Hawaii and we found everything from plastic bottles to flip flops, fishing gear, we found an entire couch. And some of this debris was clearly local and some of it had clearly come from other countries around the Pacific Rim. So debris can touch even the most remote places."
    Given what you know, working on this problem day in and day out, I would think it would feel kind of like a hopeless, overwhelming problem.
    [Dianna Parker] "It's not a hopeless situation. Marine debris is absolutely a solvable problem because it comes from us humans and our everyday practices. We can take any number of steps to keep it from entering the ocean and that can happen at the highest level with governments and it can happen at the lowest level individuals and everyday choices."

    Thanks, Dianna, for taking the time to chat with us about this. That was Dianna Parker, communications specialist with NOAA's Marine Debris Program. Want to learn more? Check our show notes for the links. You can find us on the web at oceanservice.noaa.gov. Have a question? Shoot us an email at nos.info@noaa.gov. And thanks for listening to Making Waves from NOAA's National Ocean Service.


    This turtle got caught up in a piece of plastic and grew up with it still wrapped around its body:


    Female seal caught in tangled mess of plastics.


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    Elite Member Beeyotch's Avatar
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    This is such a shame. I can't get over how so many people think nothing of littering. Into the oceans, on city streets, in parks and woods. Where do they think it goes? Were they raised to think it's okay?

    Also it makes a good point about reusing and cutting down on unnecessary plastic use. I could do more of that myself.
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    Elite Member BITTER's Avatar
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    So true, Beeyotch. I recycle at work, but not at home - someone keeps stealing by blue recycle bin.

    What freaks me out is that the size of the patch is as large as a continent...where'd it all come from?
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    Elite Member Kathie_Moffett's Avatar
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    From everywhere in the world, I guess.

    I grew up in eco-hippie-crunchy Berkeley, and in the eco-conscious 1970s to boot. I bring that up to explain why I have this irrational rage response when I see someone litter. I just want to keeeel them with my bare hands. I was well indoctrinated. Needless to say I feel like a complete POS if I drop something and can't catch it (I live in a super windy town.)

    It's so frustrating that humans can't, won't try to think in aggregate--cumulatively--argh, I can't think of the right word/phrase, I'm too tired. They just don't understand how shit adds up and spirals right out of control into total nightmare. Like picking wildflowers, cutting down old growth redwoods, etc. etc. Look at the burgeoning population problem--just another situation where everyone always goes "well, it's okay if it's just l'il ol' me having six kids!"

    Garbage is like that. "This one silly little potato chip bag won't matter!" Multiply by umpty bajillion. It's so depressing. That poor seal.
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    Elite Member BITTER's Avatar
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    I hear you Kathie...I got the same issues in my neighborhood. All I can do is keep my sidewalk clean. And the next day, it's dirty again...and I'm not perfect either.
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    I was heavily indoctrinated against littering, and to this day I will actually pick up other people's trash, and my kids do the same (which is a little gross, admittedly). But a lot of this crap probably comes from mistakes as well - think of every trash bag that falls out of a flatbed on the highway, or every bag torn apart by critters or bin knocked over by the wind. A lot of that stuff blows around all over the place before people have a chance to gather it all back up.

    I think the bigger issue is simply how much packaging and waste we use and throw away on a daily basis. I can't fucking BELIEVE the wasteful packaging on some items. There are days - if I've received some things in the mail or gone shopping or what have you - where we'll produce an entire bag's full in a single day, and we're practically hippies, FFS. I get fooled sometimes too - buy in bulk from Costco, yay! Oh look, every single fucking thing in here is individually fucking wrapped. And if you picture what it must be like at a business or commercial enterprise... oy.

    I know I'm rambling...
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    Elite Member missbazilb's Avatar
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    I'm a complete freaking hippy, cloth nappies, cloth baby wipes, home composter, recycle everything and reading this stuff just makes me want to cry. Plus, I feel like no matter what I do, I'm not cancelling out all the people that do absolutely NOTHING, and just throw everything in the garbage.

    One thing that I'm trying to figure out is how to avoid the styrofoam trays from buying meat. I have an associate that also owns a grocery store, and I'm thinking of asking him if I can bring my own packaging and get my meat there. It's one of the last "garbage" things that I just don't have a solution for. His store is a bit expensive though, but that styrofoam just kills me.
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    Elite Member BITTER's Avatar
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    Yeah, the styrofoam is hard to get rid of...and it floats.
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    Elite Member Beeyotch's Avatar
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    Yay, recently I've been getting more meat counter cuts in butcher paper, less prepackaged stuff. So many things you don't even think about.
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    Super Moderator Tati's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by missbazilb View Post
    I'm a complete freaking hippy, cloth nappies, cloth baby wipes, home composter, recycle everything and reading this stuff just makes me want to cry. Plus, I feel like no matter what I do, I'm not cancelling out all the people that do absolutely NOTHING, and just throw everything in the garbage.

    One thing that I'm trying to figure out is how to avoid the styrofoam trays from buying meat. I have an associate that also owns a grocery store, and I'm thinking of asking him if I can bring my own packaging and get my meat there. It's one of the last "garbage" things that I just don't have a solution for. His store is a bit expensive though, but that styrofoam just kills me.
    Have you thought about ordering a share of a cow or similar? If you have the freezer space you might be able to get a big custom shipment of meat all at once in packaging of your choosing. That is a tricky one, though; anything you get directly from the butcher will surely cost more, although I'm sure there's a quality difference as well.
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    Elite Member BITTER's Avatar
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    Poor turtle inhaled a straw - not for the weak of stomach.
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    Elite Member Trixie's Avatar
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    We have weekly trash pick up here--two bins, recycling and trash and our recycle bin is always full, more so than the trash bin, I try to recycle everything I possibly can. But yeah, there's so much they won't take so you have no choice but to send it to the landfill. I take all my plastic grocery bags back to the store for recycling since they won't take that in the bins. We have a "town cleanup" weekend twice a year where you can get rid of e-waste, paint, old furniture/appliances can be donated to Habitat for Humanity and we always save those things and participate. They also have a battery recycling program, so we save up for that too.

    I could probably do more in the "reduce re-use" department but I can't control the packaging of some things. I admit, I do a lot of online shopping and much of the packing materials they use aren't exactly environmentally friendly.
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    Elite Member Mivvi21's Avatar
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    That poor turtle. That had to be so uncomfortable for her.

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    Super Moderator Tati's Avatar
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    Our city is actually quite good with collection - we have "green" and "blue", with green being anything "wet" or even remotely compostable and blue being everything dry or even remotely recyclable. They have yet to generate saleable compost because people are always cross-contaminating, but at least the system and the fact that they process all of it rather than dumping it straight into landfill means that it is well contained and most things are actually diverted. Beverage containers are subject to a deposit here so those can be returned, and we have a nifty pilot project running right now that makes that process automated and self-serve, with direct deposit to your account.

    I don't think commercial enterprises are subject to the same system, though, and they really should be.
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    Elite Member BITTER's Avatar
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    I wonder if there is some way that someone could send ships out there to collect the garbage and bring it back to land for recycling.
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