An Oil Spill of a Different Sort, but No Less Deadly

Plastic pollution is poisoning the world’s seas and leaving a trail of death throughout the oceanic wilderness. It serves as a largely unseen testament to the awful cost of fossil fuel dependency, which has seeped into nearly every aspect of daily life. In 2005, on an atoll deep in the Pacific Ocean, a researcher found a small fragment of plastic from a WWII era plane inside the stomach of a dead Albatross. For decades the fragment bobbed in ocean currents and tumbled about on desolate beaches. Eventually a bird mistook it for food. At this moment millions of tons of trash spoil the world’s oceans. The accumulation between California and Hawaii alone is so immense it’s been given a name: The Great Pacific Garbage Patch. It’s purportedly the single largest dump on the planet. And it continues to grow.

Beginning about 500 nautical miles off the coast of California, encircled by several major oceanic currents, the water swirls in a massive slow-moving eddy called the North Pacific subtropical gyre. A natural phenomenon turn pollution trap where debris circulates for decades and covers hundreds of thousands of square miles. Litter blown offshore and carried in river run off is drawn here by the surrounding currents. And much of it is plastic. It’s forever.

The environmental impact is incalculable. Millions of seabirds, mammals, fish, and other creatures perish from ingesting bits of debris or getting tangled in it. The pollution may even be poisoning the food chain and ending up in seafood on dinner plates. Yet, the plastic bottles, cigarette lighters and toothbrushes are merely the most visible traces. Plastic breaks down through a process of photo degradation. It eventually becomes dust, but never disappears. A pioneer in research on plastic pollution from Long Beach, CA, Charles Moore of Algalita Marine Research Foundation first began studying the problem ten years ago. A blog entry from one expedition describes “an endless stream of delicate, white snowflakes, like plastic powder coating the ocean’s surface.” The result is a poisonous mix of seawater with plastic outnumbering plankton in some areas by a ratio of 6:1.

The feedstock for plastic, as mentioned here, is derived from oil and its by-products. While the British Petroleum spill, the worst in American history, is currently capturing worldwide attention, we should not ignore another far more insidious oil spill of sorts that has been ongoing for decades: plastic pollution. It is oil in a different form than what is washing ashore in the Gulf, but no less destructive to the environment when littered across vast expanses of ocean. It is a global blight of epic proportions.

In response, the world’s first global scientific study called the “5 Gyres Project” launched from the US Virgin Islands on January 7. A collaborative effort led in part by Charles Moore, the expedition will take water samples from the five major gyres of the world’s oceans. The project is the most extensive scientific study on plastic pollution ever undertaken.

In a press release, Moore stated the following:

“Plastic pollution is a global issue. We’ve seen the so-called garbage patch of plastic accumulating in the North Pacific Gyre, but there are four other gyres worldwide, each with its own patch and we don’t know yet what we will find in them.”

If the North Pacific gyre is any guide, one thing is certain. Whatever researchers find will not be pleasant.

Originally published online at Hippie Magazine.

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