Did you know that somewhere in the Pacific Ocean there is a gigantic patch of garbage that’s been growing for decades? According to a three-year study reported in Scientific Reports this month, it has grown to approximately 1.6 million square kilometers, 16 times larger than previous estimates. To put that in more familiar terms, it’s more than twice the size of the State of Texas.
Scientists used a variety of methods to measure the patch including aircraft outfitted with special sensors, crisscrossing more than 300 square kilometers of the ocean’s surface. Surveys estimate that half of the so-called, “Trash Isle” is made up of discarded, or “ghost,” fishing nets. About 20% of it is debris from the Japan tsunami of 2011, and the bulk of the trash is made up of large, plastic objects.
That’s a lot of garbage. For most people, it’s an incomprehensible scale and it’s just floating around out there. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch has been on the radar of scientists and environmentalists since the 1970s.
Plastic is one of the lightest and most versatile manufacturing materials ever created. To say that it’s durable could be an understatement. But, while that can be an advantage when considering consumer products, it’s a detriment once the product is discarded.
For example, in the ocean, it can take more than two decades for a plastic shopping bag to decompose. Those disposable plastic water bottles everyone carries around are estimated to take 450 years to degrade, and the fishing line could be out there for more than six centuries. It could actually take a lot longer. The fact is, there is no way to know for certain.
What is certain, however, is that the world’s tenants need to do something to reduce the amount of plastic dumped into Earth’s oceans and slow the growth of these trash isles. Otherwise, they’re just going to keep getting bigger.
Managing the trash not only helps to protect the environment and marine life but the economy of regions affected by its presence. Fishing is more hazardous in these areas and tourism can be dramatically affected – who wants to go to a beach where this junk is regularly washing ashore? For some areas in the Pacific, tourism accounts for the bulk of their income.
While politicians, diplomats, and environmentalists debate toward no useful resolution, there are things that individuals can do to help reduce the problem. Plastic straws, grocery bags, and one-use water bottles are reportedly some of the items most frequently tossed in the garbage can.
Recycle plastic products whenever possible. Instead of dropping a water bottle in the trash, use recycling receptacles marked for plastic and other consumer packaging.
First, water bottles. Nothing’s worse than a flat of those thin, flimsy discount store water bottles. So, why use them? If every person in every gym in America chose a reusable water bottle instead of a throw-away, just one time, there would be thousands less plastic bottles in the landfills and tossed into the ocean.
Reusable water bottles are inexpensive, as little as $2.00, and can last for years. Hint – go with a metal bottle instead of plastic but avoid ceramic-lined thermal bottles for daily hydration. They’re heavy and break easily if dropped.
Next, when a store offers the option between paper and plastic shopping bags, choose paper. If plastic is preferred, keep them and reuse them as many times as possible. Try to avoid using them as trash bags, however, because they can slow the decomposition of their contents.
A better option is reusable cloth or nylon shopping bags. It might take some planning to get into the habit of reusing them, but they are much stronger than their plastic counterparts and they’re washable.
Lastly, drinking straws. Strange as it may sound, some cities in America are banning the use of plastic straws; Malibu, Seattle, Fort Myers, and Miami Beach, to name a few. Paper straws are inexpensive and decompose easily. One downside, most don’t bend, so if that’s a required feature, reusable silicone straws might be a better option.
None of these will totally solve the plastic waste problem. But it can certainly make a difference if everyone does his or her part.
Gery L. Deer is an independent columnist and business writer. More at deerinheadlines.com.