Connecting the Dots: The North Pacific Gyre
If you are like me and drive a car, you’ve invariably put a quarter into a parking meter at some point in your life. And if you’re really like me, you’ve driven around trying to find a free place to park because as usual, you’ve forgotten to refill the ashtray with quarters even though your wife has told you a thousand times that you’re going to get caught with no change one of these days and why don’t you just listen to her and be quiet anyway.
But I digress.
Ever wonder why you put that quarter in? I’ve thought a bit about this, and while we don’t really think of it this way, it comes down to sacrifices and consequences. I recognize the sacrifice of putting the quarter in–giving up 25 cents, having to remember to bring it in the first place–and I understand the consequence involved in not doing it–a $35 parking ticket, slightly elevated blood pressure, and a tirade of expletives in a public place. A lot of choices can actually be broken down into these two little concepts, and once you recognize them, it becomes easier to make good decisions.
So why am I writing about this today? Mainly as a way of explaining why I have strayed from the intent of my original post. I set up the idea of putting out there a bunch of challenges and trying to help ease folks into consuming and wasting less. But I quickly realized that there is a need to explore the bigger picture and truly understand the consequences of our actions. Once we connect these dots and those consequences become clearer it makes it easier to make the right decision.
You can say you’re going to waste less, but once you’ve seen the landfill your waste is going to end up in, or the 1 million plastic bags that enter our landfills every minute, it becomes less about a decision-making process and more about just doing the right thing, the thing that makes sense. In other words, once you recognize the consequence, the “sacrifice” doesn’t seem like a sacrifice at all.
The North Pacific Gyre (the g is hard like Garbage, not soft like Junk), also known as the Great Northern Garbage Patch, is something that everyone on the planet should see for themselves. It is a vortex of currents floating out in the Pacific Ocean between California and Japan that is twice the size of the continental United States and is filled with plastic debris–3.5 million tons of plastic debris to be precise, and it’s not going anywhere anytime soon.
A gyre by definition is a vortex and this one fits the bill perfectly. Currents from this area of the Pacific continually travel in a clockwise direction and anything that enters the system tends to stay in that system. Sort of like a toilet bowl that never flushes. As a result, if you were to travel across the Gyre, as my friends are doing right now (www.junkraft.com), you’d encounter plastic bottles, plastic bags, plastic caps, cigarette lighters, toothbrushes, action figure doll parts and a host of other things that have no right being there.
But there they are, and simply put, we sent them there. It is estimated that 80 percent of the plastic that is in the Gyre is runoff from human waste streams. Of course there is no way to accurately track how it all got there, but the bottom line is this: When you find a plastic fork, plastic bottles, plastic caps and more 1,500 miles out in the middle of the ocean, it’s there because we used it to begin with and the only way to stop it from ending up there is to stop using these items in the first place.
When I talk to people about the gyre and show them the sample I carry around with me, their first question is, “Well can’t we just vacuum all the stuff up?” The simple answer is no because the area is too vast and the debris too deep (some of it up to 30 meters below the surface). Imagine trying to vacuum the United States, and when you were done, starting all over again!
The other question I hear, albeit less often, is, “It’s all the way out there, why should I care?” Here’s what I tell them. Plastic debris never breaks down completely but does degrade into smaller and smaller particles. As carbon-based fuel pollutants settle on the surface of the water, the plastic particles attract these cancer causing particulates and become super charged little toxic pills, sometimes in the neighborhood of 1,000,000 parts toxic residue to 1 part plastic! Smaller fish eat these particles, bigger fish eat the smaller fish and we eat those bigger fish. While I’d like to be able to tell you that the fish don’t absorb all that toxic waste, the truth is that they do, and therefore, so do we.
On a more karmic level, something I have a tougher time with but that doesn’t directly affect me, there is the impact our plastic detritus has on wildlife. Take a look at these pictures (warning, not for the faint of heart) of bird carcasses found completely filled with plastic debris all over the tiny islands that dot the Pacific. Sea birds drop down to water level, scoop up what they believe to be fish, and end up with a belly full of indigestible plastic, which eventually kills them. I may not see them and I may not eat them, but the fact that they are dying because of my bad habits leaves me no choice but to change my ways.
Watch “Synthetic Sea” (posted below) and you’ll see firsthand what I am talking about. It’s a massive problem that we have created and continue to feed, and it’s not going away. And when you consider that the North Pacific is only one of nine gyres in the world–and the only one to be seriously studied–it makes you realize that our plastic ways need to stop, and need to stop now.
So the next time you pull out a plastic water bottle, use a single use plastic utensil, or toss out a plastic bag, think about the North Pacific Gyre and ask yourself, “Do I really want to be part of this?”
Dave Chameides is an environmental educator and freelance filmmaker. He writes alternative fuel articles for Edmunds.com and maintains the blogs 365 Days of Trash and Achieving Sustainability. While he is presently saving all of his trash for a year to better understand his environmental impact, his main focus is sustainability through education and believes that with knowledge all things are possible.