Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Great Garbage Patch

Did you know there's a garbage patch the size of the state of Texas floating in the Pacific Ocean midway between Hawaii and San Francisco? It’s called the Great Garbage Patch (or officially the Pacific Trash Vortex). The oceans currents and our irresponsible dumping (80% of the trash originated from land and 20% from ships) have created this nightmare for marine life and obscene evidence of our wastefulness.

Most of the debris in the Great Garbage Patch is plastic – about 46,000 pieces per square mile. 3.5 million tons of trash are floating out there. Fish, birds and sea mammals all ingest this stuff because it’s more plentiful than plankton, and they wind up dying of starvation or dehydration because their bellies are full of plastic.

Every piece of plastic ever created is still with us here on earth. Yep, all those happy meal toys and cheap dollar store crap will eventually fill up the entire ocean at the rate we’re going. Except for a small amount that is incinerated (releasing all kinds of lovely toxic chemicals), the plastic we create does not go away. If you’ve ever camped with children, you know the smell of burning plastic because they can’t resist throwing that plastic fork in the fire. There’s a reason that smell makes everyone turn their heads. There is no safe way to get rid of plastic, except recycling it. But even then we’re not really getting rid of it, are we?

Much of the plastic in the Great Garbage Patch is plastic bags and bottles. This doesn’t surprise me, does it surprise you? How many plastic bags and containers do we throw away each day? So much of our food comes in plastic and many times we are too lazy to rinse out that gross macaroni salad container or clean the bag that we toted the shrimp home inside. After seeing the footage (you can see it too), I’ve been haunted by images of marine mammals trapped in plastic, carcasses of great birds bloated with plastic trash, and the sheer volume of debris floating out there. I can’t bring myself to throw away another bit of plastic. I thought I was pretty conscientious before, but now it’s a compulsion. I don’t want any other creature to suffer for my convenience.

And we can’t say this is the fault of those overindulged folks on the other side of the country, we’ve got a Garbage Patch of our own here on the east coast. It’s called the North Atlantic Garbage Patch. There are other patches out there too. We’re all responsible. Our ignorance and laziness are to blame. I, for one, want to change my ways. More than ever we need to REDUCE, REUSE, and RECYCLE. This is the simplest thing we can do. That’s easy to say and most of us already try to do that, but we need to take it to the next level. Here’s some ideas/inspiration:

1) Give up the plastic shopping bags. Just swear them off. I know it’s a pain to carry non-disposable bags with you everywhere and sometimes we feel silly using them when we only need one small item, but do it. Be quick to offer your shopping bags or say “I don’t need a bag” because if you don’t, some disgruntled clerk will bag your stuff in plastic and then put it in your cloth bag (I kid you not – this happened to me just last week! And when I removed the plastic bag and handed it back to her, she threw the plastic bag in her trash can. No, really.). If more of us bring our own bags or opt for no bags, it will soon be the accepted practice and the people walking out with plastic bags will look shocking. Put your bags in all your cars, carry a small  bag in your purse. Environmentally friendly bags are available every where now in all shapes and sizes and materials. You can announce your cause or your coolness with them.

2) Stop buying bottled water. This one is so clear to me, I want to scream it. Not only is it a waste of money – it’s an obscene use of plastic. Everywhere we go – parties, picnics, and athletic games people are offering us plastic water bottles. People carry them everywhere - to the gym, out shopping, to meetings, we can’t seem to get enough of them. We’ve all gotten the message that water is good for us – but plastic bottles are not good for the world. If you must buy a bottle (I realize that at sporting events and movie theaters you can’t carry your own in with you), take the bottle home with you to recycle. We must take responsibility for the plastic we purchase. A few places offer recycling bins, but people don’t seem to take them seriously. As I peer in to recycling bins full of trash, I often wonder whether the minimum wage worker dumping the trash just dumps the recycling in the same place rather than pick out the errant garbage. If I was 16 and barely making enough money for gas, I doubt I’d get my hands dirty.

3) Don’t buy plastic sandwich bags. I admit to having one box in my pantry, but I can also tell you that box will at least a year in our house. We use Re-usies (and homemade versions of them), which are adorable fabric bags lined with (you guessed it) plastic that can be rinsed out or thrown in the laundry time and again.

4) This may be obvious, but just in case it’s not – DON’T BUY DISPOSABLE STUFF. There is a plethora of disposable cleaning stuff advertised. What, are we afraid of washing out a rag or getting our hands dirty? When I see things like this, I think of the garbage pickers in Mexico or the people who live in India subsisting on the things their neighbors throw away. We have come to believe that just about everything is disposable – phones, appliances, toys, home furnishings. We are very quick to throw out anything that is less than perfect or not the latest model. Many times we opt for the cheapest version of things, knowing that we can always throw it away and get another. We need to change this mentality. We need to buy quality things because they last, not cheap stuff because we can always get another.

5) Think about packaging before you buy, whether it be food or toys or anything. Don’t buy overpackaged stuff and let the retailer know. I recently bought the most delicious, healthy crackers at Trader Joes. They were called Thousand Layer Crackers and were fabulous and I wish to heaven I could buy them again. But I can’t. Why? Because each cracker is individually wrapped (yes – one cracker in each wrapper!) and then stacked in a plastic divider, which was then wrapped again in a plastic wrapper before being placed in a box. I wrote the company and complained and they sent me a nice form letter that said they’d look in to it. As long as those crackers continue to sell, I’m betting the packaging won’t change. And if most consumers make their choice based on taste without regard to the irresponsible packaging, they’ll sell just fine.

6) Buy recycled stuff. And I’m not just talking about paper products. I shop the Goodwill every week. This is a great way to buy recycled stuff. Yard sales, Craig’s List, Freecycle, there are so many options out there. Get in to the game – it’s fun to get a deal. I bought a leather Liz Claiborne purse at Goodwill last week for just $3.97! I’ve left the Goodwill price tag ($6.97) on my bread machine that’s been cranking out bread almost daily for over a year, just to remind myself of the great deal I got.

7) Donate your stuff instead of throwing it out. Just because that game isn’t in perfect condition and your dog chewed up some of the pieces, doesn’t mean someone else’s child won’t find it a treasure. I’ve been waiting for a Stratego game to appear at the Goodwill. Somehow my children lost the board (I know), and they want a new game. Well, their plastic-fearing mother can’t bring herself to buy another brand-new game (with over 60 plastic game pieces), so they must wait until one appears at a yard sale or Goodwill. Meanwhile, they’ve fashioned a board out of the side of a cardboard box and they play on. Make it easy for your kids (and you) to give away your stuff. Keep boxes marked for donation in convenient places around your house. We keep one in the laundry, one in the hall outside the kids’ rooms, and several in the basement. This makes it simple to get rid of stuff without contributing to the Garbage Patch.

I know these may seem like small changes, but like everything else, small changes add up. Retailers take note of what customers buy and don’t buy. Other shoppers notice when you carry in your own bags. Yes, that one bottle does make a difference. Change will happen, but someone’s got to lead the way. We cannot wait for government to take responsibility for the Garbage Patches. They won’t. We must take responsibility ourselves. We must be the change we wish to see in the world, right? Ghandi had it going on.


  1. I hate what this world has become, i really do. I adhere to the small changes also but fear it maybe to late and indeed washes over the mentality of many. Keep up the good work friend.

  2. It's impossible to fill up the entire ocean with garbage. garbage didn't spontaneously come into existence. It was made through materials on land. Oceans make up 71% of our planet.

    1. they cover 70% of the planet but are only 0.02% of the mass of the earth. It is quite possible for them to "fill with garbage" at least we could easily cover its entire surface with garbage. I don't think it's going to happen but it's definitely possible.

  3. okay...this was scary

  4. Someone brought to my attention the Garbage Vortex in the Pacific and I was in SHOCK to find it was true.
    I wanted to comment that your words are very well stated. I admit my laziness is part of the problem and I vow to now do something about it. I practiced some of your ideas but clearly not enough of them. I plan on sharing this info so maybe I can get at least one more person to play along.
    Maybe changing will become contagious....

  5. Plastic bottles of any kind are bad, not just the ones with water in them.

    And the ones that don't have water in them contain crap that's far worse for you.

  6. I've been to Hawaii which is the exact center of the Pacific Gyre and never saw this vortex. Why would that be?

  7. It is my understanding that the garbage patch is way out in the ocean, far from any land. You would need a boat or plane to see the patch. There are lots of pictures available through scientific and environmental websites.

  8. Yeah but Hawaii is way out in the ocean.

  9. if there is a lake 5 miles across (just go with it) and there is one of those big trampolines that sits in the water that kids play on, and the trampoline is on the far eastern side, you probably wont run into it if you are canooing on the far western side. same works with hawaii and the trash vortex. the ocean is huge. if you dont pass it, you dont pass it.

  10. also, the trash vortex is in the middle of hawaii and san fransisco. . .meaning that if you boat out to hawaii from sanfransisco you might see it. hawaii isnt the center of it though

  11. why don't the company's make the products be sued for non disposal for trash and make clean up the mess then you see world change and people change cause anything in plastic be to hi to buy, and then end your plastic problem.

  12. PLEASE read the Wikipedia entry about this. Although it is a problem and needs to be fixed, the pollutants are NOT visible from satellites or even the deck of a ship, since the very small pieces are under the surface of the water. When scientists study this mess, they have to locate it using sampling, since is not visible on the ocean's surface. The main picture on your blog for this article is misleading, and is not an actual picture of Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

  13. We should so protect the wildliife. It is so important to everyone that we do! Lowering one population could lead to an increase in the next to a decrease in the next until all that is left is three or four species. That would be a total disaster. My interest in the wildlife has totally changed from concerned to making a difference. I plan to create a program ,for anyone to join, to help clean the trash up in just the community. It would still make a difference in the air and how the animals breathe. Which means that they get to live longer and that more of them will repopulate which means more of a chance to see them. You see all of the inocent little bunnies or deer in your back yard everyday. Make a change for them so that they can keep coming back to your yard in the summer. Most of all make a difference for any animal in the world out there. when you start making a change in your community hopefully everyone else in their community across the world will start making a difference in theirs as well. Sooner or later we will be protecting our earth and the animals that live inside it. One small difference can lead to a whole change. Start now! you don't even have to go big. Start small by picking up trash you see on the street, or planting more trees, and driving in your car less to cause less pollution in the air. you will realize what a difference it has made. Good luck to you all and have fun making the Earth a better place to live for any human or animal.

  14. I truly agree with you. We should lessen the stuff we consume as much as possible, and if we do so, we should ensure that they are of a material that can be more quickly disintegrated. You'll still have the bins carrying and collecting trash, but at least they can be more easily rid of in the long term. Thanks for sharing!

    Clarence Rios @ Bins By Jo

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