6.15.2010

Garbage Land: Disposing Our Trash and Our Values


An ocean gyre is a system of rotating currents. There are five major ocean gyres on the Earth: one in the Indian Ocean, two (north and south) in the Pacific Ocean, and two (north and south) in the Atlantic Ocean. The gyres are caused by wind patterns and planetary vorticity. Basically, they are water vortexes which sweep garbage and other debri into their centers. This leads us to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. At the center of the North Pacific Gyre is a collection of garbage the size of Texas, maybe bigger (the exact size is unknown because it continues to grow). It is dense and conatins approximately 3.5 million tons of trash (1). We have an entire state-sized, or even country-sized mass in the ocean that is directly caused by consumer products. For most of you reading this, the garbage patch is a distant issue having little to do with your everyday lives: out of sight, out of mind. But the truth is that each and every one of us can do a part in controlling this situation before it becomes even more devastating. Maybe, as we learn more about the garbage patch, it can teach us something about ourselves in return as well. The giant mass of floating trash is a microcosm (maybe not so micro) of our macro, cheap consumer goods, problem.

10% of all our trash ends up in the ocean but most of that 10% is plastic. In the area of the North Pacific Garbage Patch there are over ten pounds of plastic for every one pound of plankton (2).  Other sources even have the numbers estimated at 13 to 1 (3). Pop bottles, for example, make up a huge amount of the debri in the Great Garbage Patch; one reason for this may be that this kind of plastic is very light and easily carried away in the wind or swiftly float along on the surface of rivers to the ocean. As highlighted in an earlier post on this blog, plastic, especially nurdles, not only don't biodegrade but also absorb toxic chemicals. Therefore, the garbage patch plastic poses quite a threat to marine life that inevitably consume it and a therefore threatens us all the way up the food chain. Over a million seabirds are estimated to have died because of trash in the ocean. Here is a list of just some of the ways in which garbage can harm sea life:
  • Trash entangles fins and flippers leading to suffocation
  • Causes cuts which get infected
  • When eaten the garbage blocks digestive tracks
  • Creates a false sense of being full without providing nutrition after it's eaten which leads to starvation
  • Spreads toxins like PCB's that were absorbed by the plastic 
You may be wondering, why is the largest garbage patch located in the North Pacific Gyre if all gyres sweep debris together? Because two main garbage producing countries are on either side of the North Pacific Gyre: Japan and the United States. The US is number one for how much municiple waste is produced which is around 720 pounds per person per year. Japan is much lower on the list but still produces a significant 400 pounds per person per year. In link (3) above you can scroll down and see, however, that the United States contributes more to the garbage patch than Japan (which has it's own semi-gyre). This may explain why the gyre in the Atlantic, taking on America's East Coast waste, does not have the same problem because the currents have greater ranges and do not consentrate the garbage so heavily.

The way many of us understand garbage disposal is that a truck picks up our trash and drives it to the dump where it is burried. Sometimes it works out this way. However, a significant portion of trash never makes it to the dump or is blown/carried away from the dump by wind and animals. The garbage enters rivers, lakes, and streams and moves from place to place in that system, ending all the way in the ocean. In seaside cities the trip to the ocean is much more direct. Also, not all waste is taken to a local dump. Cities and States make agreements between each other to take on trash from different areas. Some of your trash is transported hundreds of miles away which creates even more opportunities for the it to be displaced and enter the water system.

The Great Garbage Patch is physical evidence of the type of culture we've created. A disposable culture. Try to think of how many things you use each day that are thrown away within just a few hours of use (or even in just five minutes of use): sandwich baggies, paper towels, candy wrappers, to-go cups of coffee, pop bottles, and the container your quick-lunch-break-food came in. Think of how absurd the idea of a paper towel actually is, you have rags to clean with which you then wash just like clothes. Would you buy paper clothing to wear once and throw away? You create over 700 pounds of trash every year; that's about the weight of a very large cow or steer. Yet, would it be that difficult to cut back on your waste? It is easy to throw out your plastic bags and bottles after use, but try washing them out and using them repeatedly. Or sit down to have a meal in a restaurant rather than getting to-go or carry-out containers. If you usually have left overs after dining out, consider bringing your own re-usable container to take the food home. Corporations have made things very convenient for everyone: throw it away, get on with your day. But this is at a great cost to the environment, animals, and eventually to you. Re-think your decision to throw things out so easily, putting a little effort into daily life can yield great returns for you and the world.

Check out this video about plastic in the ocean:

3 comments:

Liberality said...

I will try extra hard to not buy so much stuff in plastic. If it's available in glass I get that instead. We recycle everything we can and compost too. I really dig your blog! :)

Land Source Container Service Inc. said...

Thanks for the video. It really boosted my morale and my feelings about the environment, now I know I shouldn't feel guilty when I pressure everyone around me to recycle and quit being such litter bugs.

-Land Source Container Service, Inc.
City Container Services

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