Editorial: Beautiful oceans and trash islands

  • Plastic garbage is displayed before a press conference of the Ocean Cleanup Foundation in Utrecht, Netherlands, last year. The foundation is working to clean up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. AP

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

We’ve been thinking a lot about trash these days. In an editorial last month, we wrote about how 85 percent of right whales die after getting tangled up in nets, ropes and other fishing industry garbage that litters the oceans. On Saturday, the Monitor’s David Brooks wrote about the difficulties of glass recycling, and specifically how the town of Warner is handling the challenge by grinding up the glass and using it as a substitute for gravel or sand. Also in Saturday’s edition, Forum contributor Jim Baer of Concord wrote about enormous patches of trash in the Pacific and Atlantic oceans.

The existence of rapidly expanding oceanic garbage islands seems to be a fitting tribute to a world where so many people consume products without ever really thinking about what happens to the packaging they toss away.

The most famous of these trash islands is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which covers about 620,000 square miles. This isn’t the kind of patch that can just be scooped up by boats with nets. Of the 1.8 trillion pieces of trash in the patch, 94 percent are microplastics – or pieces of plastic the size of a sesame seed or smaller. That’s 250 pieces of plastic debris for every person on the planet. In terms of tonnage, however, microplastics amount to just 8 percent of the patch. The same kind of fishing industry refuse that is killing right whales off the coast of New England makes up nearly half of the patch’s 80,000 metric tons. Eventually, sunlight and water will break down much of that larger trash into microplastics that will go on to further pollute the food chain.

As if the idea of an enormous soup of trash wasn’t discouraging enough, scientists say it is growing exponentially. Now that the snow has melted, it’s easy to see why.

Next time you’re out for a walk or drive, notice all the plastic bottles and bags littering the roadside and think about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Eighty percent of the plastic in the oceans originated on land (as opposed to marine sources, such as lost shipping cargo or discarded fishing equipment). While reducing the size of the patches is a monumental task, reducing the rate of their growth is not. Try to cut back on the plastic that ends up in your personal trash by purchasing reusable water bottles and grocery bags, for example, and urge your local supermarket to stop using unnecessary packaging for meats, fruits and vegetables. It may be convenient to buy pre-shucked corn sold on a plastic tray and covered in plastic wrap, but we suspect that you wouldn’t want to see that same packaging floating in the ocean during your next fishing trip or beach vacation.

At this point, it doesn’t matter who or what is most responsible for the world’s trash problem. What does matter is the steps all of us take as individuals to keep it from getting worse.