Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch

Left: a "trash boom" in the Los Angeles River collects floating waste that had washed away from city streets after a storm. This photo by Rick Loomis was part of a Pulitzer-winning report on plastics in the world's oceans from the Los Angeles Times.

There's a lot of plastic on the loose - and not just in treetops. As alluded to in the previous post, a lot of it ends up washing away: down the nearest storm drain, into a river, and out into the ocean, where plastics make a languorous journey along the ocean's currents until they arrive in a stagnant patch of dead water in the middle of the Pacific known as the North Pacific Gyre - or more recently known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Charles Moore, an oceanographer studying the Patch, estimates that this patch of ocean, twice the size of Texas, might contain about 100 million tons of floating plastic confetti (source).

But you probably already know about this, as it's been well-documented on the Internet and in excellent documentaries like this amazing series from Vice magazine.

I'm more interested in the recent Crusade against Plastic Bags. Have you noticed how this has become an environmental flash point? Across the nation, yuppie grocery stores and yuppie cities are banning plastic bags outright.

Even though it shouldn't be lost on anyone that floating plastic, in and of itself, is a relatively minor environmental problem in the grand scheme of things, and even though I suspect that the yuppies are using their plastic bag bans as a way to forgive themselves for the massive volumes of other petroleum products that they habitually use, burn, or throw away, I'm generally encouraged by this new cultural suspicion of plastic.

But it's also strange. I mean, we've been seeing plastic trash tangled in trees and washed up at the high tide line for decades now. We made that Indian cry 30 years ago. What's different now?

I think that the Garbage Patch story might be a big part of it. The Gyre is one of the most isolated patches of ocean on Earth - and yet, humans have managed to unwittingly send millions of tons of garbage there. A newly-discovered floating continent of plastic makes for a pretty compelling story. It might even be better than drowning polar bears.

But I think that the more critical force behind this phenomenon is the general surge in concern about environmental issues - especially global warming. Ostensibly, plastic garbage has very little to do with the climate crisis. But if you're worried about the climate, you're also extremely frustrated at the lack of political leadership on the issue, and at the lack of opportunities - beyond switching lightbulbs - that individuals have to do anything about it.

In this context of general frustration, though, we've found something we can seize on: plastic bags. Here's something that individuals can claim for themselves as a small but meaningful gesture.

Compared to climate change, plastic garbage is a small problem. But this new prejudice against plastic bags shouldn't be looked at as a rearranging of deck chairs on the Titanic: it's a small but significant rejection of the American disposable culture. The oil and energy we save from producing a few less plastic bags isn't nearly as significant or meaningful as the idea that we should reuse things instead of throwing them away.


Anonymous said...

60,000 plastic bags used in the U.S. every 5 seconds, adds up to quite a lot of oil. And most are used for all of a few minutes, to get an item from store to home.

Brown said...

Small things that people can seize on in a local way--hearkens back to your earlier condemnation of local land trusts as garden-makers for the wealthy.