The Northern Pacific has a garbage patch. The Northern Atlantic has one too. Not to be outdone, researchers have discovered evidence of a previously unknown massive garbage patch, this time floating in the Southern Hemisphere.
Since 2011, scientists from the 5 Gyres Institute have been studying plastic pollution accumulation in the area known as the South Pacific Subtropical Gyre, an expanse of ocean that runs adjacent to South America.
In its study, published this week in the Marine Pollution Bulletin, the institute concluded those waters do indeed have a defined oceanic garbage patch, a mass of floating plastic, marking the first documentation of its existence in that area.
Most assume that a garbage patch is made up of large whole pieces of trash, but in truth, much of it consists of “micro-plastics,” small fragments about the size of confetti that have been broken apart by exposure to the sun. These pose an obvious threat to the water's ecosystem because fish and birds eat them, ingesting their poisons, which then move steadily up the ocean’s food chain.
You can see that demonstrated in this now-infamous picture from photographer Chris Jordan.
According to the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), once plastics enter the ocean, their consequences can be felt for centuries afterwards.
Estimates of plastic pollution worldwide are already dire, but they might be worse than previously reported. According to Live Science, research performed last year by oceanographer Giora Proskurowski shows micro-plastics in ocean waters could be two and half times greater than some estimates, many of which are based on surface-water testing. Due to wind currents, much of the ocean's polluting particles can be driven down to the water's floor, making surface samples look "cleaner" than they actually are.
The most obvious answer to our plastic problem seems simple: Stop using so much, if you use any at all (and what you do use, recycle). But really, changes need to happen way before we get to the recycling part of the equation. The NRDC reports that in order for plastic-reduction initiatives to work, they have to involve mandating that manufacturers that use the material are held accountable for finding new ways to package their goods, ones that reduce or eradicate the need for plastics altogether.
And when it comes to personal use, forgoing plastic water bottles and shopping bags are two significant changes that are easily made, ones that that don't even require inconvenience or incurred costs on our part.
It's easy to disconnect our personal choices from their environmental impact, but clearly, whether we want to think about it or not, they're here and they're not going away.
What sorts of plastics would you have difficulty letting go of in your own life? Let's discuss it in the Comments.
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