The Great Pacific Garbage Patch

For decades, ocean currents between Japan and the United States have been carrying flows of garbage back and forth, accumulating in a region known as the Pacific Gyre, or the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. This floating garbage of nonbiodegradable plastic is now a potential goldmine for international recyclers, who are now part of an exploratory project to study the discarded plastic and its potential. They are joined by scientific researchers who will look at the effects of the decomposing plastic on marine life.

This is good news – greater attention is now focused on the garbage, and research is underway to study its impact on ocean life. More importantly, attention is focusing on the long ignored but dirty truth about our daily consumption habits: Human-produced waste has successfully accumulated to the point where it is now known to outweigh the mass of plankton 6:1 in some ocean waters, according to previous research.

Now that the recycling industry has entered the picture, there is hope that recycling will be an integral part of the solution by accelerating the clean up and using garbage productively. Also, the industry could be an economic boon during recession times, while making advances in the sector to make recycling a more efficient process.

Cleaning it up is an important step. But in the long term, recycling is not the end-all solution to waste. Recycling also incurs its own waste within the production process, and such a system wouldn’t necessarily discourage consumers from changing their current product consumption and garbage producing practices. Consumer cultural behavior, which is still largely ‘consume-and-throw-away,’ has yet to be addressed in a meaningful way.

But campaigns such as “Take Back the Tap” are examples of efforts to engage consumers to rethink the value of what they consume, particularly with regard to the waste of resources consumed and the waste products created. Perhaps a zero garbage campaign or a garbage recycling contest would help bring a new level of consciousness and engagement among consumers.

The long term implications of accumulating, nonbiodegradable waste must be central to the issue. The garbage, which has already become so profuse, is being mistaken as food and already has been found in the bodies of fish, birds and other marine life. Having entered the food chain, plastic, a persistent organic pollutant, is likely to impact our health on an increasing scale.

The quality of our waters is in decline and its ecosystems are being negatively affected due in part to our unconscious consumption practices. The sustainable clean-up solution to this garbage patch goes beyond removing the end product. It requires a shift away from consumer cultures that would in turn prevent waste creation in the first place.

For more information on protecting marine ecosystems, see Worldwatch’s Oceans in Peril: Protecting Marine Biodiverity here.

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