Oceans Awash in Plastic

Ever wonder what happened to that plastic wrapper or water bottle you accidentally dropped on the sidewalk the other day?

Alex Roslin
The Montreal Gazette
Saturday, November 15, 2008

If you think it wound up in a garbage dump or recycling depot, think again. A lot of the plastic debris that litters Montreal streets is flushed into the city's sewers and straight into the St. Lawrence River.
It then floats off into the Atlantic, where circular ocean currents slowly bring it to the centre of the North Atlantic.
Scientists are growing alarmed about massive floating garbage patches that are believed to be building up in the calm centres of the gyres in the middle of nearly all of the world's oceans.
The best-known patch, dubbed the Great Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch, consists of an estimated 100 million tonnes of plastic debris that has accumulated in the North Pacific gyre. Environmentalists call it the Pacific Trash Vortex.
It is believed to be at least half the size of Quebec and possibly up to 10 times its size, depending on how it is measured. And it seems to be growing. Plastic from the vortex is increasingly washing up on Hawaiian atolls and being found in the guts of seabirds and fish.
An estimated 100,000 marine mammals die each year from eating or being entangled in debris - mostly plastic - in the North Pacific alone. Hence the vortex's other nickname: the Plastic Killing Fields.
Plastic in the sea doesn't biodegrade like other garbage. Instead, it slowly breaks up into tinier and tinier pieces that float on the ocean surface or sink to the sea bottom and can take years to finally reach the ocean gyres.
The vortexes are increasingly seen as environmental disaster zones. Plastic contains many toxic chemicals; it also soaks up other dangerous substances already present in the ocean, like carcinogenic PCBs and DDT.
While the oceans may seem far away, Montrealers are directly contributing to the plastic vortexes, say environmentalists like Hélène Godmaire.
Godmaire is the Montreal director of Great Lakes United, a Canadian-U.S. environmental group. The group will issue a report in coming weeks on how antiquated sewage systems in Montreal and other cities in Quebec are discharging massive volumes of raw sewage into the St. Lawrence.
The sewers lack filters and grates to prevent plastic and other street litter from being swept into the river, Godmaire said.
Indeed, 80 per cent of the plastic in the ocean gyres is believed to come from the land, while the remainder is litter from cargo ships, cruise boats and other sea vessels.
"Next time there's a rainstorm, just look at what's in the gutter," said Elaine MacDonald, a Toronto scientist with the environmental group Ecojustice Canada.
"The sewers are directly connected to our rivers and lakes." In a 2005 survey, Ecojustice gave Montreal's sewage system a failing "F" grade - the second lowest grade in the country after Victoria.
The group faulted Montreal for having an antiquated system of sewers. Two-thirds of the island has sewers that combine storm water and sewage in the same pipes.
In normal conditions, the city's sewage-treatment plant filters out plastic and other debris in the rainwater.
But when there is a heavy downpour, the pipes often back up, and raw sewage and debris are discharged directly into the St. Lawrence, said Duong Dao Dang, an engineer at the plant.
Ironically, the situation isn't much better in more recently developed areas of the island where storm and sewer pipes are separate - mostly in the West Island. Here, storm water flows directly into the river, with little filtering of debris.
Grates over gutters catch larger litter, but smaller pieces of floating garbage often wash into the St. Lawrence, Godmaire said.
Montreal city spokesman Philippe Sabourin confirmed culverts that discharge rainwater into the river don't have gratings or filters. "That could create a blockage," he said.
sss Richard Thompson is one of the few scientists studying plastic in the oceans. The marine biologist at England's University of Plymouth first noticed the problem in the early 1990s while working on his PhD at a lab on the Isle of Man, between Scotland and Ireland.
He helped organize a beach cleanup day and was stunned by the amount of garbage - mostly plastic - that had washed up on the island's shores. He borrowed the lab's pickup truck to carry away the debris, expecting he'd have a single load.
"We made six or seven trips and still hadn't touched a fraction of the quantity on the beach. It brought home for me the enormity of it," he said.
"Look at a street after a fair or busy shopping day. You don't have to walk long to see people dropping litter. It doesn't have to be dropped into the sea to wind up there." In a landmark study in 2004, Thompson looked at old samples of plankton collected in the North Atlantic starting in the 1960s. He found microscopic pieces of plastic in the water that had been scooped up with the plankton.
What's more, the amounts of plastic had exploded. The latest water samples had about four times more plastic than the earliest samples from the 1960s. That coincided with a 25-fold increase in plastic production worldwide between 1960 and 2000.
Even more alarming, the water samples were from an area of the Atlantic north of Britain that isn't even in the gyre. No one has ever studied the amount of plastic in the Atlantic gyre itself.
Thompson's studies reported other alarming research: Ninety-eight per cent of dead seabirds studied in northern Europe have plastic in their stomachs.
More than 260 animal species are known to eat or get entangled in plastic - turtles, fish, marine mammals, even small creatures like mussels, barnacles and beach flees.
Ten per cent of all plastic debris eventually winds up in the sea.
Ocean currents and winds are slowly bringing all that debris to the centre of five major ocean gyres in the North and South Atlantic, North and South Pacific and the Indian Oceans, said Marieta Francis, executive director of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, based in Long Beach, Calif.
But despite the ever-growing plastic blobs in the oceans, the Pacific gyre is the only one that has been studied.
That research started when the Algalita foundation's founder, an avid boater named Charles Moore, chanced upon the Pacific Garbage Patch during a 1997 yacht race.
"There were shampoo caps and soap bottles and plastic bags and fishing floats as far as I could see," he told the U.S. News & World Report.
"Here I was in the middle of the ocean, and there was nowhere I could go to avoid the plastic." The vortex was in the North Pacific gyre, where a high-pressure zone forces debris into a central area that has low currents and winds.
Sailors used to fear getting stuck in gyres because the paltry wind could leave ships stranded without headway for weeks on end.
Moore returned with a scientific vessel to study the vortex and netted everything from a cathode-ray tube to a truck tire, a mass of fishing net and a chemical drum.
One of his most outlandish finds: a 16-kilometre-long slick of Taco Bell plastic baggies. He estimated there were 6 million.
Moore found up to 970,000 pieces of plastic per square kilometre in some areas of the vortex.
That was triple the density found in an earlier landmark study in the western Pacific by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
That study, done in 1988, was the first to document large amounts of plastic in the Pacific. One area 1,000 kilometres east of Japan had 315,000 pieces of plastic per square kilometre.
The density in Moore's gyre is much higher. "You can go for days and days and see plastic everywhere," said Francis.
Moore estimated in 2002 that the volume of plastic in the gyre had tripled in the previous 10 years.
While much of the debris is large and conspicuous, most of it has disintegrated after years of washing around in the ocean.
The plastic pieces are usually five millimetres across or less and must be scooped up in nets finer than a window screen.
"It's not quite what people think. It's like a soup," Francis said.
In the Atlantic, the only research on plastic garbage is more than 30 years old. A survey in the northeastern Atlantic in the early 1970s found 160,000 pieces of plastic per square kilometre in some areas.
Back in Canada, the growing plastic vortexes still seem far from the official radar. At the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, oceanographer Denis Gilbert is one of Canada's leading experts on the St. Lawrence and Atlantic environments.
Gilbert said no one in his office is studying plastic debris entering the St. Lawrence River. As for plastic accumulating in the Atlantic gyre, he had never even heard of it. "We have no one working on that," he said.
Thompson, for his part, hopes to cobble together funds for a scientific sea voyage to the heart of the North Atlantic gyre to confirm for the first time that a plastic trash vortex is indeed gathering there, just as in the Pacific. He also wants to study the impacts on the environment.
"I'd be very keen to go. This stuff is here for generations to come. We haven't really begun to comprehend the impacts."
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Our Toxic Trash Winds Up in the Sea

Plastic accounts for an estimated 70 per cent of all the human garbage in the world's water bodies. Here are some more plastic facts:
8% of the world's oil production is used to make plastic.
40% of plastic is used for packaging material.
500 billion to one trillion plastic bags are used worldwide every year.
5% of plastic is recycled in the U.S.;
20% in the European Union.
10% of all plastic debris is thought to wind up in the sea.
80% of plastic in the Great Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch comes from the land.
1.7 million pieces of plastic were found per square kilometre of shoreline in a 2005 worldwide survey.
100 million tonnes of plastic is in the Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch, estimates the Algalita Marine Research Foundation.


Marieta Francis says there is a simple solution to the growing soup of plastic trash in the world's oceans. "We need to stop it on land," says the California environmentalist.
Marine biologist Richard Thompson agrees. The first solution, he said, is not to litter the streets. "Any litter that is dropped has a high potential to get into waterways," he said.
Thompson's other solutions come from the three Rs: reduce, reuse and recycle:
Reducing plastic use. Thompson said two-fifths of plastic is used for packaging, which is typically discarded after a single use not long after a product is bought. Another big culprit: plastic bags. Some countries and cities have banned them outright, while others have slapped taxes on them.
Improving recycling. Just 5 per cent of plastic waste in the U.S. is recycled, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. The Canadian rate isn't known, but Toronto scientist Elaine MacDonald said it would be quite low, too. One reason: Each municipality has its own recycling program, while provincial guidelines are generally weak, she said.
Designing smarter. A lot of plastic products can't be easily recycled because they use different colours or types of plastic that can't be combined during recycling. "We should design products with a high potential for recycling," Thompson said. Japan is often seen as a model for this idea. Its goal is to achieve a "closed loop" economy in which all used products are recycled into new ones.
Developing biodegradable plastic. Scientists are experimenting with new biodegradable plastics that slowly break down when exposed to sunlight or water. Some of the products are made from corn or pea starch.
Canadian environmentalists Hélène Godmaire and MacDonald say Montreal and other older cities on the St. Lawrence Rivers and Great Lakes need to improve antiquated sewage systems that discharge a lot of plastic and other garbage into the water. They propose:
Filtering storm water. A lot of plastic gets into the sea through outdated city sewers that release debris directly into rivers and lakes. Solution: screens and grates to catch the litter. (Also important: cleaning the screens regularly.)
Upgrading sewage systems. During heavy rain, Montreal's sewage system often backs up, discharging untreated sewage and rainwater carrying plastic and other garbage into the St. Lawrence River.
Thompson said the public has a strong appetite for change.
"Already we are seeing consumers turning away from plastic bags. I think you'd find very quickly consumers would vote with their feet. The public is keen to do the right thing," he said.

What are plastic garbage patches?

Scientists say they believe plastic trash blobs bigger than most countries are forming in the middle of the world's oceans. The debris is slowly brought there by circular ocean currents called gyres that sweep up debris and bring it to their centres. Think water funneling down the toilet.
The Great Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch is the only one that scientists have studied up-close. It's estimated to contain 100 million tonnes of garbage and its size is estimated at anywhere from 700,000 square kilometres (half the size of Quebec) to 15 million sq. km. (10 times Quebec's area) and at least 60 metres deep. Some scientists say it might actually be two trash vortexes - one between Hawaii and California, the other between Hawaii and Japan.

Where are they?
Plastic garbage patches are believed to be accumulating in five gyres - in the middle of the North and South Pacific, the North and South Atlantic and the Indian Ocean.

What's in them?
All sorts of litter has been found in the gyres - everything from a cargo spill of millions of plastic baggies to bottle caps, Styrofoam, syringes, water bottles, traffic cones, lighters, tires and toothbrushes, beach balls, plastic bags, shampoo bottles and plastic dinosaurs, checkers, highlighter pens, perfume bottles and fishing line.

Where does the trash come from?
One-fifth of the plastic in the oceans is thought to be litter from ships. The rest comes from land: Much of it is litter from city streets that is swept into sewers and gets discharged into rivers and lakes, eventually making its way into the sea. Some can also blow into the water from poorly secured trash bins or get taken there by seagulls having a snack at a garbage dump.
The trash can take years to bob its way to the ocean gyres, where it slowly breaks up into ever-smaller pieces until it resembles dust.

What does it look like?
Some of the plastic debris can be seen bobbing on or near the surface but much of it has broken down into tiny pieces after years of floating in the sea and is barley visible, so the garbage patch is often described as plastic "soup." Most pieces are less than five millimetres across. About a third of the debris floats on or near the surface - 60 metres down or more - while the rest sinks to the sea bottom.

What is the impact of the plastic garbage in our oceans?
Over 260 animal species are known to eat or get caught in the plastic debris. About 100,000 marine mammals are estimated to die from doing so in the North Pacific alone. On Midway Island in Hawaii, 400,000 albatrosses feed their chicks nearly five tonnes of plastic a year, John Klavitter, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Survey, has estimated. A European study found 98 per cent of dead seabirds had plastic in their stomachs.
Scientists fear toxic chemicals in the plastic may enter the animals' bodies. People may also ingest microscopic pieces of plastic when they eat fish.