By now most people have heard about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Located in the North Pacific Gyre between Alaska and Russia, the Garbage Patch is a floating island of plastic trash twice the size of Texas. However, don't let the term island fool you.
"People have this idea that it's something you can navigate to and tie up and walk on, but it's not. It's a plastic sea," says Stiv Wilson, an environmental activist and communications director for the 5 Gyres Institute. "It's pretty intense when you're out there. It's like confetti just spread throughout the ocean like a plastic soup."
Wilson and four of his fellow researcher/activists arrived in Charleston last week after a long bike ride from Boston. Along the way, they stopped to educate people about plastic pollution in the ocean.
Carolynn Box, a 5 Gyres staffer who left her government job to sail with the team, describes her first experience traveling through the plastic sea. "The one thing I came back thinking about over and over again is how massive the ocean actually is," she says. "When you're out there and you haven't seen another boat in two weeks and then you start pulling up these trawls and there's a toothbrush and a bottle cap, it's heartbreaking and it shows how big and how extreme the issue really is."
Gyres occur when currents and weather patterns create a slow, giant whirlpool in the ocean. Worldwide, there are five major gyres — in the north and south Atlantic and Pacific and in the Indian Ocean east of Madagascar. Once objects floating on or near the surface make it to a gyre, they're likely to remain there in slow, perpetual circulation. Over time, the trash accumulates. Wilson and the 5 Gyres team have trawled and recorded the extent of plastic pollution in each of those gyres.
And the problem isn't limited to the five gyres. Around the world, the team has never once taken a water sample that didn't include at least a minute trace of plastic in the water. "Plastics don't biodegrade. They photodegrade," Wilson says. "UV light breaks down polymer molecules into smaller and smaller bits. Every piece of plastic ever made is still in existence with the exception of what's been burned."
To make matters worse, plastic acts as a sponge, absorbing chemicals. As a result, Wilson claims, ocean plastic can have one million times the concentration of toxic endocrine disruptors and carcinogens as the water around them. "Fish eat the plastic scraps, and it moves up the food chain to humans," he says. "Plastic isn't just in the environment. It's not a dominant part of the ecosystem where you have animals living and breathing and totally interacting with plastics."
Jennifer Keller, a local biologist with the National Institute of Standards and Technology, has conducted research that backs up Wilson's assertions. She studies the accumulation of toxins in the tissue of sea turtles. "These toxic chemicals would rather be on some kind of plastic or organic material than just being in the salt water," says Keller. "It's another way that chemical pollutants get into marine animals."
Keller notes that turtles that eat higher up in the food chain, like loggerheads which dine on crabs and mollusks, have higher toxin levels than green sea turtles, which eat ocean vegetation.
Many people have seen the now-infamous photographs of dead albatross chicks on the Pacific Ocean's remote Midway Atoll, their decomposing bellies full of plastic, but the problem seems far away and remote. Wilson likes to point out that all of the trash in the ocean originated on land.
That's where the local Surfrider Foundation chapter comes in. According to Chairman Marty Morganello, the group regularly finds cups, straws, and other plastic debris when patrolling between Folly Beach's 2nd block East and 3rd block West, a stretch of sand they sponsor. Surfrider encourages local municipalities to reduce single-use plastics, citing figures that show our per-person pound-a-day plastic habit could be cut in half by eliminating disposable products.
"How insane is it that we drill for oil and design a product that's designed to be used for 15 minutes and then thrown away?" Morganello asks. He adds that a plastic bag ban may be next on Surfrider's agenda. "When that one option is taken away, it will become second nature for people to bring their own bags. Businesses are not going to suffer by not giving out plastic bags."
And apparently, these bans work. In 2011, Italy successfully banned plastic bags, and Ireland has imposed a tax on bags — about a quarter each — that almost immediately reduced their usage by over 90 percent, while Delhi, India, banned bags after they began clogging sewer systems and causing floods. In the U.S., Portland, Oregon, and San Francisco have banned plastic bags as well.
Morganello, who lives on Oak Island near Folly Beach, suggests that the Edge of America is an ideal place to begin the initiative, although he believes that island residents may be wary of another "ban" in the wake of the alcohol-on-the-beach debate that divided island residents this summer.
Omar Colon is one such resident. Colon, the owner of Bert's Market, says, "We've already looked into getting rid of plastic, and the biodegradable alternatives are a lot more expensive." He adds, "A ban could put a strenuous situation on local businesses, but I think solutions can be found by coming together in a proactive process, without legislation. A lot of it comes down to awareness."
5 Gyres' Wilson, who helped lead the anti-plastic bag charge in Portland, believes bans and voluntary moves away from using plastic are the first step in addressing a larger problem. "I look at plastic bags as a tactic in a strategy, because it confronts people at the point of purchase and says, 'This is wasteful.' So it starts to get them thinking about everything else," Wilson says.
Of course, Wilson and his compatriots have to help their fellow Americans overcome half a century of pro-plastic brainwashing. During their presentation, the 5 Gyres team display a 1960s story from Life magazine with the headline "Throwaway Living." The picture shows a happy family tossing their used paper cups and plates into the air. The subhead reads, "Disposable items cut down household chores."
Considering the hectic lives that the overworked masses already lead, the 5 Gyres team clearly have their work cut out for them.