When we were back home in West Virginia, we picked up litter on a regular basis in our neighborhood, and my husband always took a bag in his briefcase or jacket pocket so he could pick up litter he found on his walk to work. The kids always asked, “Why do people throw down their trash like this, Mommy?” The best answer I can come up with is that people are irresponsible slobs, some of whom have very little respect for other living things or their community and whose own parents never taught them any better…oh, don’t get me started. Our own kids are so used to helping that there are times when we have to tell them to NOT to pick up the litter, please, because we are in a place where there is just too much for us to do anything about at that particular point in time. Sad.
When you are at the beach, the litter is not only being thrown down by beachgoers, but is washing up from the perpetual stream of garbage floating around in our oceans. One of our duties while volunteering at Curry Hammock State Park in the Florida Keys was to pick up litter off the beach every day. Bucket after bucket full of plastic bits. Shoes, Bottle caps, oil bottles, deodorant dispensers, water bottles, more bottle caps and even more bottle caps.
The term gyre generally refers to the rotating currents of the world’s 5 great oceans. Each of these gyres (Indian, North Atlantic, South Atlantic, North Pacific and South Pacific), along with the plastic bits we all contribute in one way or another, forms a plastic vortex. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, in the North Pacific gyre, is the most well known and likely the largest as well. No one can measure exactly the size of the Plastic Trash Vortex, but it is estimated to be from 270,000 square miles to 5,800,000 square miles. (Potentially larger than twice the size of the continental United States!!) Yes, that is very, very big. Yes, that is A LOT of garbage!
Marine debris such as this originates from several sources, improper disposal and littering of waste on land, carried by wind and river systems; from sea sources include cargo ships, cruise ships, fishing vessels and stationary platforms. I have to wonder about the laws regulating garbage dumping by barges and cruise ships in international waters. Just from a quick read on this point it seems there is some dumping allowed by permit only and then a lot of gray area in international waters.
Keep in mind that plastic breaks down but it really never goes away. NEVER. It turns into little teeny bits that you can’t see with your naked eye, but it still accumulates in measurable quantities in the upper water column, making it difficult for large sea life, coral reef systems and fisheries alike. While in the Florida Keys, we visited The Turtle Hospital in Marathon. http://www.turtlehospital.org/blog/ One of the most significant problems they treat the turtles for is impaction of the digestive tract by litter that they have ingested.
It takes about 6 years for a piece of plastic leaving the shores of California to reach the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. But it is not just large pieces that are familiar and obvious, like a water bottle. Micro beads are increasingly becoming a problem because they are too small to be filtered by wastewater treatment facilities, and so as you cleanse your face with that popular exfoliating product, you wash down the drain many tiny bits of plastic that then enter your waterways. Fish eat them, then larger fish eat those fish and then we eat those fish, bringing them into our bodies. That’s called bioaccumulation and it happens with all sorts of chemicals and products. Illinois recently became the first state to pass a law that bans the manufacture of personal care products containing microbeads by the end of 2017, the sale of personal care products and the manufacture of over the counter drugs containing microbeads by the end of 2018, and the sale of over the counter drugs containing microbeads by the end of 2019. Hopefully other states will follow suit.
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