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world wide wednesdays :: the old trash and the sea

is there life after death? there is for your garbage. in fact, there's even kind of a garbage heaven, or haven, in our oceans oceans. the pacific is best known, but the atlantic and indian oceans have also staked their claim and despite the fact that we've known about them for years, there hasn't been much of anything done to address the problem. as a result, they're now taking on an eerie permanence and although we haven't yet colonised them for human settlement, it might not be that far behind. so today, here are some fun facts about the awesome islands of garbage that are sailing the open seas like pirates, picking up our discarded booty.

the first thing that warrants clarification is that these garbage islands aren't islands. and no, i don't mean they're actually peninsulas. but they're generally more like swamps, with an incredible concentration of plastic, much of it in pieces so small as to be invisible to the human eye. you could probably swim through sections of it and, assuming you didn't freeze to death, get swept away and drown in the rough seas, or get eaten by something large and scary, you might not even realise that you were in the midst of a huge dump. of course, you'd probably feel pretty sick afterward, because you'd doubtless swallow lots of plastic shrapnel. whether that would cause you any long term damage is unclear, but assume that it wouldn't be good for you. i have a feeling you're not going to be doing it anyway.

but in case you're feeling disappointed that there aren't massive islands of old diapers spinning around in the oceans, perhaps this will cheer you: there are islands within the garbage patches. the "great pacific garbage patch" now has a spiffy fifteen metre [fifty foot] island that boasts its own reefs, coastlines and marine life [largely mollusks and seaweed]. this was likely caused by the 2011 tsunami that hit japan and dragged much larger pieces of trash into the ocean. although it's taken time, eventually it all ends up in the garbage patch.

so how does the garbage know to find its way to the nearest hangout? well, it doesn't. we're not creating sentient garbage [yet]. the movement of currents in the world's oceans creates five major gyres, areas where the all converge and kind of spin around together, and when garbage ends up in the ocean [either because people put it there, or because it blows there from landfills or places where it's simply been dropped], the currents naturally spin it towards the gyres and leave it there. the oceans are much better at making sure all the trash ends up in the same place than we are, as it turns out.

one of the biggest problems cited by garbage patch scientists [they exist] is the effect of all this garbage on marine wildlife. bird carcasses are often found packed with the stuff, which they seem to eat and which fills them up, thus disguising the fact that they're starving to death from lack of nutrients. however, there may be a little more to it than that. because the animals that are examined are the dead ones, we don't know if it's possible that some animals eat the plastic and live [we know fish can, but it's not clear if they can in a trash-packed environment like the garbage patches]. while it's nice to think that our garbage isn't killing entire species, there's nothing reassuring about this idea, because it means either the animals don't absorb the plastics, which means they go straight out the back door and back into the ocean, or they do absorb them and all their chemicals, which means that those chemicals get spread through the entire food chain, where they could possibly case genetic mutations that could last forever. [side note :: the garbage also provides an easier method for some species, particularly insects, to move around, allowing them to travel long distances and see parts of the world where they've never been. and conquer them. invasive species have a way of upsetting ecosystems that are not used to dealing with them.]

a few years ago, scientists were somewhat relieved to find that the garbage patches seemed to be shrinking as the sun finally succeeded in breaking down the plastic bits through photo-degradation. [a term that sounds kind of naughty, but just means the changing of things through exposure to light.] i'm not exactly sure why they were so jazzed that the plastics were disappearing, since their chemical components would still be floating around, but any shrinkage has to be a good sign, right? [stop giggling, this is serious.]

well, it turns out that we don't have to debate how good or bad it is, because they were wrong. their results were based on trawling the oceans and seeing what turned up and, lo and behold, there were fewer pieces. and now i'd like to remind you of my earlier comment about many of the pieces being too small for the human eye to register. when subject to more accurate methods of testing, like analysing the density of the water from the air and testing its composition, it turns out there's way more garbage than was previously thought. although the tests were conducted on the "big boy patch" in the pacific, it's not unreasonable to assume that the same doesn't apply to its little brothers.

there's also the issue that the garbage goes much deeper than we originally thought: the relative strength of the currents in the gyre, as well as their density and temperature, means that some are forced beneath others and they seem to take their garbage right along with them. so the garbage builds up well beneath the surface as well as floating on top of it and it collects to form sold or semi-solid structures there as well.

the great gondwanalands of garbage will likely never wash up upon our shores, although they may send emissaries that break away from their orbit. in a way, that makes the problem worse, because most of us are never going to see the oceanic gyres [and we wouldn't be able to see the extent of the trashery even if we did] and this keeps us from thinking of what we should be doing to contain and control these mutants of our modern world. these aren't just things we can rush in and clean up with the world's toughest shop vac. but we need to find a way of removing them that's a lot less harmful than it was putting them there in the first place.

p.s. :: all of the images used are from the unesco-backed art project the garbage patch state, which was started to call attention to the problem of the patches. you can find out more about it here.

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