A floating continent of trash in the Pacific

Young albatross on an island in the Hawaiian Archipelago
Credit: Credit: Flickr (Forest and Kim Starr)
Jeune albatros sur une île de l'archipel d'Hawaï
A floating continent of trash in the Pacific

Every year, at the approach of Earth Day, a number of organizations are taking advantage of the occasion to emphasize just how much our planet needs protecting. And sometimes simple actions can make all the difference: recycling, for example, reduces the quantity of garbage found in our oceans.

An unsettling discovery

In 1997, Captain Charles Moore discovered a 700,000-square-kilometer “floating continent” of plastic waste, the equivalent of half the surface of Québec. The density of the plastic at the time was six times greater than plankton’s. Eighty percent of this plastic waste is from land-based sources, brought there by the wind and rivers of Asia and North America, and it collects at the center of the North Pacific gyre (circular current). This garbage floating in the mid-water portion of the ocean is undetectable from space, from planes flying over, and even from the bridges of big ships. Since that initial discovery, further “continents” of rubbish have been located in the gyres of other oceans on the planet.

Eternal polymers

All plastics produced over the last 60 years still exist, and will still be there 500 years from now. The total historical production of plastic is estimated to be over two billion metric tons. Artificial polymers are not biodegradable. Only the sun’s UV rays and the oxygen in the air manage to break them down after a few centuries of exposure, and then provided they’re not buried or submerged.

The ocean’s garbage patches, ultimate destination of the Earth’s waste

Bits of floating plastic debris have a tendency to cluster together, either in the center of oceanic gyres or on the coasts. Coastal debris has become a threat both from the ecological standpoint and for the tourist industry. After a few years, floating plastic debris breaks up into smaller and smaller pieces of plastic. These end up forming a “plastic soup,” and we still do not know all of its potential impacts on marine life.

Indigestible plastics

This “eternal” trash poses numerous problems for marine life. Marine turtles swallow polyethylene bags that look like jellyfish, their favorite food, and which end up blocking their digestive tract. Seabirds, meanwhile, confuse polypropylene bottle caps, old pens, lighters and other small objects with their food. They even bring back their fatal finds to their chicks. We find the scrawny carcasses of those birds stuffed with a deadly collection of items. Lost or abandoned nets made out of synthetic materials drifting with the ocean currents continue to fish all by themselves, day after day, ghost fishing that no fisherman takes responsibility for.

And all we have to do is pick things up!

Recycling is one of the solutions that will make for a reduction in the quantity of plastic in the environment. A radical change of attitude with respect to the management of our waste is needed. Let’s not forget that every gesture counts. The Earth thanks you for thinking of it. For more information on the subject:

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