Captain Charles Moore accidentally discovered the endlessly floating plastic waste that’s now called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in 1997. Returning from a yacht race to Hawaii, he took a different sea route and whenever he surveyed the mid-Pacific horizon, “There was a soap bottle or a piece of plastic.” Addressing a standing-room-only local audience last month, Moore recounted his founding the Algalita Marine Research Foundation to study the ocean’s plastic load.
“We live in a plastic world,” Moore said. The plastics netted by his research crew outweighed zooplankton, the base of the ocean’s food chain, by six to one.
Some plastics accumulate microscopic life forms that concentrate the hormone-disrupters and other toxic chemicals in the plastics.
Sea birds like albatrosses mistake brightly colored polypropylene bottle tops bobbing along the surface for food and take them back to feed their young. Ingesting plastic kills adults and chicks alike.
“We had to be trained out of our natural instincts to conserve” and the frugal habits that got us through World War II to embrace the throwaway culture, Moore said. Plastic throwaways were marketed as “ways to ease a housewife’s burden” while keeping American factories busy.
No one touted the achievement behind this massive cultural shift to plastics: Humans are the only creatures on the planet that create waste that Earth’s cleansing systems can’t handle.
All Earth’s oceans testify that we’ve now created more stuff than we can ever use, store or discard. The ocean is so filled with plastic that beach cleanups, however frequent, can’t make a dent in the problem. The toxic tide has to be stopped at its land-based sources.
We use two million plastic beverage bottles every five minutes in our country. Simply giving up bottled water can be a significant starting point. So when you feel thirsty, skip the bottle and turn to your tap. This thrifty choice is healthier for you and the oceans.
Bottled water can cost up to 10,000 times more than tap water. And since EPA’s tap water standards are more stringent than the Food and Drug Administration’s standards for bottled water, drinking tap water is as safe — or safer — than bottled.
If you don’t like the taste or worry about your tap water’s quality, a filter pitcher or faucet filter will remove bacteria and some chemicals, but not fluoride. Some people float slices of lemon in a water pitcher in the refrigerator. Take a reusable bottle filled at home when you leave and refill it as needed. Travel bottles with built-in filters also are available if you’re visiting countries where water quality is dicey.
Deposits on bottles offer another approach. States with “bottle bills” — beverage container laws — reduce roadside litter anywhere from 30-64 percent, studies find. A bottle’s deposit or “cash return value” for glass, metal and plastic can range from 5 to 45 cents, providing an economic incentive for recycling.
Washington doesn’t have a bottle deposit law — but that could change, with enough public support to overcome industry lobbying efforts.
Combining deposits with convenient redemption sites, bottle bill states reach recycling rates from 65 percent to over 90 percent and impressive community payoffs: Less litter means reduced cleanup costs for cities and counties. Recycling and redemption centers provide jobs. Hauling less stuff to out-of-state landfills saves money, engine exhaust and highway wear and tear.
Moore identified a huge source of plastic pollution that most landlubbers don’t think about: aquaculture, or ocean farming.
Traditional ways of growing shellfish have given way to using plastic buoys, traps and collars on tidelands and beaches. A heavy storm or rough tide and these gadgets float free of their moorings.
Moore’s collections kept turning up basketball-sized black floats and puzzling plastic mini-ziggurats that eventually were traced to Korean aquaculture.
We have barely begun to recognize, much less limit the impact of increasingly large aquaculture operations. Washington State’s Department of Fish and Wildlife unwittingly added to ocean pollution when it developed a method for farming geoducks using PVC tubes. Monitoring efforts don’t account for plastic escapees.
Now is the time for guidelines for all impacts of farming our tidelands and to step up our own efforts to reduce our personal contribution to plastic pollution.
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