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The plastic problem

By: Nick Ochs

9 December 2019

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch has been much reported. It’s the size of Texas or twice that, depending on who you ask. Covered by everyone from Vice to Business Insider, it has gone beyond headlines and into the realm of popular culture that anyone with even a casual interest in saving the environment has heard of it.

Floating between Hawaiʻi and California, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is an accumulation of debris brought to one vast ocean zone by natural currents.  It’s not a thick island of floating toys, cups, and plastic bags as might be envisioned. You cannot dip a net in the patch and draw out a collection of trash.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is more insidious than that: as the sun beats down and waves break over every piece of refuse, the sea plastic breaks down into microscopic pieces but does not leave.  It is consumed by plankton, fish, whales, and by us.

Water samples collected by scientists tells the truth. Our oceans are thoroughly polluted -- so much so that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is but one of five garbage patches.

Perhaps there is strength in the name of a thing. Even if college students can’t name the other patches, the general idea that the sea has been tainted has broken through to the mainstream.  This impression is accurate.

Garbage Patches.png

The consciousness of a plastic strewn ocean has influenced legislation.  Since a 2015 photo of a sea turtle swimming with a face impaled by a loose straw went viral, laws in such coastal states as California and Hawaiʻi have restricted, and in some cases even outlawed, single use plastics such as straws and plastic bags.

The desire to fix the problem is here.

Since Richard Nixon established the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970, we no longer use DDT pesticide and rivers in Ohio do not catch on fire anymore.  The results were measurable, and the cultural change has been lasting. But is there a law that can be written to fix the ocean? What will a country without straws achieve?

The sources of plastic in the sea present a challenge that goes beyond voting green.  America deposits about 1% of the plastic waste entering the ocean. Europe contributes even less.  With development and stable government comes environmental regulation and dumping of solid waste into water is among the least tolerated pollution in both the western world and the developed Asian nations of Korea and Japan.

This is not the case elsewhere.The Daily Mail has reported China alone is responsible for 28% of the plastic flowing into the sea. Highly populated areas with cultural norms that don’t include recycling are putting plastic in rivers, and it is flowing to the ocean.

The extent of underdeveloped countries contribution to ocean plastic was revealed starkly by a 2017 study published in the journal Science.  Scientists measured the plastic content flowing into the ocean in rivers across the globe. According to the study Export of Plastic Debris by Rivers into the Sea, out of 57 rivers studied, 95% of the plastic flowing into the ocean was found to come from just 10 rivers.

The study was a collaboration of three German scientists who measured plastic content of rivers worldwide and found that the ten top polluting rivers are all located in Asia and Africa.  Lack of industrial regulation or lack of ability to enforce regulations along with undeveloped sewers and water management techniques make rivers a convenient method of disposal for plastic and other waste. Five counties bring most of the trash in the ocean to the ocean: China, Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam and Sri Lanka. 

This is the dilemma for western environmentalists.  We live in countries that plant two trees for every one cut by loggers. We are reaching the limits effective legislation to improve our Earth where we stand on it.  Yet most of the world, both in population and geography, does not live this way. Conventional wisdom says they will not be interested in our finger wagging either, but we swim in the same waters.

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