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May 24, 2011

Getting the Plastic Out

You probably know about the vast areas of plastic "soup" that's taken over several gyres in our oceans after decades of careless plastic pollution. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is probably the most infamous case, but the problem persists around the globe. The problem has been known for decades, but this recent New York Times' Green blog item suggests that serious efforts to figure out solutions are only now beginning to materialize:

Numerous projects have sprung up to combat the problem, including efforts to recycle trash recovered from the seas and campaigns to raise public awareness. In the United States, NOAA initiated a "Marine Debris Tracker" mobile application in cooperation with the University of Georgia that enables users to report on trash spotted on coastlines and waterways.

A charity known as Plastic Oceans is working on a major documentary on the issue. Endorsed by the environmental grandees David Attenborough and Sylvia Earle, it is expected to be released by early 2013. And in Europe, Ms. Damanaki recently proposed paying fishermen to "fish for litter" to combat the pollution in the Mediterranean.[...] Easily swallowed by marine life and prone to absorbing contaminants in the water, this gunk is now a key focus of scientific concern, with some researchers worrying that the stuff could end up in the food chain. "It is everywhere and in every water sample that we have collected since 1999," said Marieta Francis, executive director of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation in California.

In February, I spoke with Dr. Marcus Eriksen, Algalita's Director of Project Development and co-founder of 5 Gyres, about possible solutions. "Beach clean-ups are gyre clean-ups. Gyres kick out trash constantly to nearby islands and mainland shores. If we can stop adding more, that's the solution," he told me. Unfortunately, the problem is bound to get worse before it gets better. Plastic manufacturing is projected "to rise inexorably from the estimated 250 million tons churned out annually now." Watch this excellent lecture by Van Jones about the plastic problem that exists, even when not concerning the oceans.

-- Brian Foley

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