2017-05-17 / Opinions

Our trash will come back to us

Beach season will be here soon, which makes a recent science article especially disturbing.

In the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, an April article recounts how one isolated island in the Pacific Ocean has become a dump for the globe’s plastic trash.

A marine biologist and conservation scientist found an enormous amount of plastic garbage on Henderson Island, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Researchers visited the remote island and calculated that there was nearly 18 tons of plastic trash – ranging from bottles to industrial material – washed up on its shores. The location of the island, in the Pitcairn Group in the South Pacific, is a place scientists know as a “plastic accumulation zone” because ocean currents and tides circulate there.

As the authors note, plastic material is all over the ocean – either from people dumping it there, or from it spilling off cargo ships or washing out from shores. Plastic floats well and doesn’t break down quickly, meaning it can be carried for thousands of miles.

Ocean creatures don’t do well surrounded by plastic. Some accidentally eat it, get caught up in debris or just have their habitat filled with it. Scientists have recounted lots of ways that sea life is hurt by the debris of our modern lifestyle. And when the underwater world is clogged up, our food sources and life on land are tainted.

In this article, the authors make a stunning calculation: “The 17.6 tons of anthropogenic debris estimated to be present on Henderson Island account for only 1.98 seconds’ worth of the annual global production of plastic.” The production of plastic around the world is growing all the time, they note.

“The total number of visible and buried debris items estimated to be present on Henderson Island was 37,661,395 items,” the article authors reported. Because the island is uninhabited by humans, scientist know these 37 million items were carried there by the ocean from all over the world.

The authors note that plastic pollution is relatively new in the life of the planet, but is already a significant problem for creatures that depend on the ocean for life. That’s all of us, it turns out.

Here in the developed parts of the world we like to believe we aren’t dependent on nature for our survival, and that our own convenience is king. Evidence of that foolish and dangerous notion has washed up half-way across the world, and should leave us rattled.

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