Friday, May 8, 2009
Cousin Fred has been visiting the past few days telling us more about the North Pacific gyre than we really wanted to know. For those who haven't heard it's become known as the "Great Pacific Garbage Patch," or "trash vortex" - essentially a floating expanse of waste and debris in the Pacific Ocean now covering an area as big as the US and Canada combined. Best guesses are it contains almost 100m tons of flotsam, a vast "plastic soup" stretches 500 nautical miles off the Californian coast, past Hawaii and almost as far as Japan.
It's not like a big island of plastic junk and can't be seen by people who just sail across the region. It's way more insidious than that since most of the garbage is underwater from the surface to a depth of 40ft but not tightly compacted. It's there to strangle, trap or suffocate wildlife with the natural effect of killing millions every year. That's why Fred looks so worried. His family has known about it for years but the toxic soup of refuse was discovered by people in 1997 when Charles Moore, an oceanographer, decided to travel through the center on a whim. (picture from Greenpeace)
He found bottle caps, plastic bags and polystyrene floating with tiny plastic chips. Discarded plastic worn down by sunlight and saltwater disintegrates into smaller pieces. In subsequent trawls Mr Moore discovered that the chips outnumbered plankton by six to one. Does that sound healthy? The tiny fragments are the worst since they act as sponges for heavy metals and pollutants until mistaken for food by small fish. The toxins then become more concentrated as they move up the food chain through larger fish, birds and marine mammals. Guess who's at the tippy top?
In June a Japanese ship called Kaisei (meaning Planet Ocean), along with a decommissioned fishing trawler carrying special nets, will travel to the zone to see what they can do to begin a cleanup. It's being funded by the Scripps Oceanographic Foundation and the Brita Company which makes me wonder if they're planning to fill a really big jug and pour clean water out of the other end.
I know there's a lot of bad stuff going on right now and you probably don't want to be reminded of more. Television people have been trying to convince you this country practices a kinder and gentler torture than the Japanese in WWII or the Spanish Inquisition. Don't listen to them! I met Torquemada and you really don't want to go down that road. Then there's the bombing being carried out by stealth drones operated by guys sitting in military virtual reality game centers outside Las Vegas. Why are first person shooter games funded by the government? So they can train your children to kill without remorse, that's why. I'm not even going to talk about the continuing economic crisis other than to mention it makes no sense for a car company to get $35 or whatever billions and fire 80k employees just to save the company name and wealthy stockholders. I mean if they'd said they were going to retool and start building wind powered trains or something I'd probably agree it was a good idea. What is a car czar and why do you need one?
Anyway, Cousin Fred has his new heavy weather supplies and is on his way back out to sea. The one thing he did mention on his way out the door was that it might be a good idea for companies to start making plastics from hemp. It has lots of cellulose and really does break down but it would be best not to throw it in the sea. Please.