I hope that most readers are familiar with the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a vast island of floating garbage in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. There are actually two patches formed by ocean currents in the Pacific, one of which is twice the size of Texas. Garbage which ends up in the oceans has to wind up somewhere, and this is one of the places it winds up.
What’s astounding about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch was that it existed quite happily for some time before people began to notice it. This illustrates the vast size of the Pacific, the fact that things on its surface can remain hidden. Let alone what lies beneath; some marine biologists say that we probably know more about the surface of some planets than we do about what lies at the bottom of the ocean and in the waters between surface and sea floor. It is a mysterious world filled with all sorts of interesting and horrible things which we don’t know about.
Garbage does not magically vanish when it disappears from view in a landfill or lies forgotten by the side of the road. Indeed, it can be quite persistent, enduring for not just decades, but centuries. It may break down into small components, but it still does not dwindle away into nothing. As it breaks down, smaller and smaller organisms consume it, ensuring that garbage is found at every level of the food chain, from the stomachs of dead pelicans to the bodies of single celled organisms which mistake tiny pieces of plastic for food.
Bioaccumulation. Larger organisms eat smaller organisms and toxins become more concentrated in the process. Most animals are not designed to express the chemical compounds found in plastics because plastics are relatively new. If you can’t express them, they build up in your body. If they’re toxic, that makes you sick. Or animals die because their stomachs become bloated with plastic, because they become ensnared in trailing pieces of garbage and drown, because they choke on what they thought was food. Other animals eat animals which have become filled with plastics and other compounds and they in turn are sicked because what once was food is not simply dangerous.
Researchers recently found that the Atlantic has a garbage patch of its own. Where does it come from? Garbage which falls off trucks on the way to the dump. Garbage tossed on the ground instead of in cans. Accidents in which trucks spill their loads. Overturned trashcans by river beds. Poorly secured landfills. Deliberate dumping. The plastic bag which dances across the street in the wind. The volleyball everyone thought was someone else’s responsibility which got left behind after a day at the beach.
What is made cannot be unmade, done cannot be undone. Cleanup efforts are futile against this vast accumulation, although people certainly try and they study the garbage they find in the process. There is much to be learned from garbage, not just about where it comes from but how it breaks down (or doesn’t) in seawater and how it distributes itself in the water column. Those materials floating on the surface reflect the tip of the iceberg, concealing the garbage which is suspended in the waters below.
This is the outgrowth of consumer culture, of living in a world where everything is disposable and where garbage is efficiently collected and taken somewhere else where people do not have to look at it and they are not faced with the reality. While there has been a focus on trying to collect and control garbage more effectively through anti-littering laws, better distribution of public trashcans, more oversight on landfills, there seems to be a corresponding reluctance to address the source of that garbage.
I’ve seen small scale initiatives to dial back on packaging, to produce less garbage by packaging goods less intensively, but everywhere I look I see single use plastic things. Wrappings where no wrappings need to be. Things designed to be thrown away instead of designed to be used. Sure, some people carry reusable bags, but they still bring home food packaged excessively with them, and they throw out that packaging once the contents have been consumed. This is not the fault of the consumer; there are no other choices.
Stopping the flood of garbage isn’t going to make the garbage patches go away. The ocean is still sick and it is still our fault and while we shouldn’t throw up our hands in despair and just give up on trying to do something about the garbage that already exists, it sure would be nice if we could do something to cut down on the amount of garbage we generate, to stop piling more and more on top of what which already exists as though enough garbage will make the problem go away, as though we can bury our trash problem in more trash.
The problem, of course, is that reducing the amount of trash we make, by default, also reduces consumerism. We are indeed at the point where making a buck is more important than anything else, where something which doesn’t require buying more and spending more won’t be viewed as a viable solution. We have, surely, an obligation to keep buying more things to keep demand high so that the economy does not collapse! If we don’t buy cheap plastic crap, the companies which make cheap plastic crap will go out of business! If we eschew single use and throw away things, companies will only be able to sell a fraction of the things they once sold! Surely, we cannot have that.
The garbage patches are a great drifting pointing finger aimed squarely at us.