The “oil slicks” of plastics bigger than BP that no one is talking about

5 Jul 2010

Some people have read about both the Pacific and Atlantic garbage gyres but many have not.  There are natural occurring locations where ocean currents meet and swirl around.  Recently, scientists have begun to quantify large “oil slick” like areas of shallow confetti-sized plastic particles.  While the size of these gyres is unknown (one estimate of the Pacific gyre is that it covers an area larger than the State of Texas!), it is clear that their existence is beginning to galvanize a response.

The mere presence of billions of bits of plastic, made from oil,  covering a huge area (larger than the area of the BP spill by far)  would be disturbing enough but there are reports that fish in the food chain are mistaking the plastic for plankton and are eating it.  Given the size of these plastic slicks and the small size of the particles, it is almost impossible to clean these up.

This is expected to lead to greater efforts to recycle and prevent further plastics from reaching the oceans and then waiting the long time necessary for the plastics to finish breaking down (or to be consumed).  Will this  mean greater international regulations on disposal of ship waste and greater efforts to educate the public on waste disposal, particularly in coastal communities?  There might be a greater push for bio-based (not petroleum based) and bio-degradable plastics and an argument for European-style product manufacturer responsibility programs (think Michigan’s bottle bill writ large), although I expect there would be significant push-back on that.

Lastly, at least one visionary has a “Buck Rogers” type concept of reclaiming the plastics into a floating island.  This may not be possible, but it’s certainly aggressive.

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