It usually starts with one plastic water bottle or one beer can, casually tossed aside, just visible in the underbrush off the side of the trail where I’m walking. My thoughts are soon torn away from nature and “What a beautiful place this is,” to “What an eyesore; what the heck was that person thinking?” And then, all of a sudden, what just a moment ago looked to me like a pristine wilderness transforms into a one-item garbage dump. All I can focus on is that one rusty can or bent bottle.
It happened to me on a recent week-long trip to Florida’s Panhandle, where I hiked Blackwater River State Park, Henderson Beach and Topsail Hill Preserve State Park. During several days of photographing gulls, great blue herons and ghost crabs, I was constantly aware that just out of shot, I wouldn’t be hard-pressed to find a discarded aluminum can, a broken plastic barrette or a cracked toy sand shovel if given the challenge.
The one versus the many
I think these solitary water bottles, lonely beer cans and singular plastic tidbits that lie all over America bother me because they don’t get the attention and press coverage they deserve. After all, one cast-off bottle here and there isn’t a cause to worry, is it? There are far bigger problems out there, such as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch — a media darling that even has its own YouTube video.
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is now the largest landfill in the world. Composed of plastic shards, this gigantic debris field floats in the Pacific Ocean, about a thousand miles off the coast of California. It covers an area of hundreds — maybe even thousands — of miles and could be as large as Texas, according to some estimates. Caught in a clockwise gyre of currents that acts like a big whirlpool, this massive hunk-of-junk from all over the world sails our waters, drifting north and south seasonally as much as a thousand miles.
A growing problem
Appallingly, large cargo ships drop about ten thousand steel containers into the ocean each year, filled with computer monitors, plastic toys, plastic resin pellets and other “things” of ours. Fishing nets make up another 10 percent of all marine litter (about 640,000 tons), according to statistics compiled by the United Nations. But despite all this, researchers believe that about 80 percent of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch comes from the land: mostly from our plastic bags and bottles.
It’s that 80 percent that is really toxic. While the plastic slowly degrades, it turns into increasingly smaller bits. Some of the pieces are so small that they are almost invisible to the naked eye and float suspended beneath the surface of the ocean. To many seabirds, the bits that are brown-colored look like krill, and they eat them. As larger animals eat the smaller ones, this plastic travels up the food chain and eventually ends up in our food supply, too.
“Up” the awareness, or just pick up?
To draw attention to this big monster out at sea, “adventure ecologist” David de Rothschild has constructed a boat made partially from plastic water bottles and christened the Plastiki. He hopes to sail around the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in an effort to call the world’s attention to the problem and highlight the connection between plastic trash on land and that at sea. His endeavor has garnered him feature and cover stories on national and international magazines, such as Outside and National Geographic Adventure.
But what, in the end, will de Rothschild accomplish, other than his own fame? Captain Charles Moore, credited with discovering the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, has said that a cleanup effort “would bankrupt any country and kill wildlife in the nets as it went.”
I have to wonder if my own writings about plastics lying around in Florida’s state parks will do any more good than de Rothschild’s journey.
Despite the best intentions, do efforts to “call attention” to a problem or cause really have any lasting impact? It might just be that the world would be better off if David de Rothschild and I quietly picked up the litter we find on our beach walks, before the “Awesome Atlantic Trash Pack” is born.
Feature photo: About 80 percent of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch comes from plastic trash on land. ©John H. Gaukel