GPGP: The gigantic plastic global problem

Posted: Thursday, March 11, 2010

What is more than two times the size of Texas, surrounded by some of Earth's most precious contents and, until recently, ignored by the bulk of human civilization? Although it sounds like a generic description of Alaska, the answer is unfortunately not so pretty.

A seemingly endless number of oceanic entities and materials have been swirling around the Pacific Ocean for millions of years - but until very recently, this did not include billions of plastic fragments finding company with one another in the deep blue sea. And although some plastic sympathizers may view the location as a peaceful resting place for our oil byproducts, scientists remain alarmed at the size and growth of this so called Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP).

Between 1985 and 1988, Scientists working out of the Alaska Fisheries Science Center in Auke Bay studied the presence of these fragments, known as neuston plastic, and found an alarming amount in the "Subarctic Front in the Central North Pacific." The study concluded that there was viable cause for concern being that these particles could enter the food supply.

This was more than 20 years ago. Consumer demand for plastic has escalated to its highest levels, and the presence of these giant neuston plastic patches continues to grow. The latest estimates claim more than 100 million tons of this contaminating confetti.

The size estimates range from 270,000 square miles to more than 5,800,000 square miles, accounting for somewhere between a half a percent to more than 8 percent of the Pacific Ocean - nearly two times the area of the continental United States.

There seems to be little hope for cleaning up this mess we amassed in such a short time, simply because we create more contaminants daily than would be possible to remove. Some skeptics claim that the Ocean will continue to naturally break the pieces down into smaller and smaller increments, until they have all but dissipated. Scientists, however, reinforce the fact that there are more particles per square mile of the neuston plastic than krill, and will inevitably make its way into our food chain.

Awareness seems to be our only remaining hope. Word has spread recently, and the issue is gathering more and more press. Perhaps if we were to be more conscious consumers of plastic we could at least have an impact on the GPGP's growth - or we could continue to place it in the box with other issues "too hard to handle." Of course, as the ocean life feeds off of our garbage-and we in turn feed off of them-we truly are biting off more than we can chew.

• Stacy Hammond lives in Juneau with her husband and six young children.

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