Sunday, March 21, 2010

Ecology 101 & The Island of Trash

I remember first hearing the term Ecology when I was in High School. It was back when there were actual Hippies running around. It was a time when Ecology or Environmental this or that was not something one could easily major in. Maybe you could major in Forestry, Oceanography, or Geology at a few special places. I remember Ecology sounding like something good, wholesome, and necessary. As a society, we were awakening to the hazards of air and water pollution. MIT had just published their Limits to Growth study that applied an exponential growth model to natural resource usage and spoilage painting a rather dim picture if we, mankind, did not change our ways.

I never did major in Ecology. But in studying mathematics and then operations research, I came to appreciate the complexities and interactions of trying to allow commerce while also trying to better manage the environment. Many interacting systems and forces are at play with the underlying reality of an exponentially growing human population worldwide. It is truly an issue to be concerned about and truly a difficult problem to solve.

I do not believe it is easy to comprehend the entirety of it all. We are all subject our own biases. Are we pro-business and pro-development? Or are we pro-environment? Will capitalism and the free market get us to solutions? Or do we really need live with a lot less, real soon? These are hard questions to answer democratically with all the various constituencies involved.

We are human and as such we tend to look and react at things we can easily see in the short term. There are debates about global warming. Is it real? Is it a fabrication of uber-environmentalists? If we have a really hot summer, we jump to one conclusion. A really cold and snowy winter will alleviate the concern. We see a video clip about a few polar bears struggling to get onto a melting ice floe and suddenly global warming is back at the top of our minds not to mention a huge concern for the polar bear population as their habitat melts away.

No one ever mentions the island of garbage the size of Texas floating and growing in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Island of what? Where? The size of Texas? 3.5 million tons of plastic? Wow. Is this true? Does such a thing really exist? If so, it doesn’t sound very good at all.

How can such a thing exist and we not know about it? OK, it is in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. It is out of sight and thus out of mind. But come on, the size of the state of Texas. How the heck are we every going to clean that up and if we did where would we put all that… stuff. It is the size of the state of Texas. What kind of boats and equipment are needed for this job? How many would be needed? Again where would we put the trash? There are a million questions and no one seems to be talking about this. Learning about this really raises a lot of questions.

How did I find out about this Semi-Continent of Trash?

A geology professor and I were talking at The College of Lake County where I am an adjunct in the Math Department. We were chatting about experiences. He is also an adjunct and we were discussing his many experiences and my one in dealing with toxic sites. In the course of conversation, he mentioned the Island of Trash in passing. Astonished at the scope and size, I kept asking probing questions like Huh? Are you kidding me? How come I have never heard of this before?

Are you skeptical? Are you asking the same kinds of questions? Just go to your favorite search engine and type in “Island of Trash” and see what pops-up. You will be amazed by what I believe is a humungous environmental story that is basically unreported by the mainstream media and hence unknown to the vast majority of people. Oddly, when I searched for Island or Trash, Pacific Ocean Trash, and other variants at and nothing came up.

Is this story real? Is it a hoax? Is it hyperbole? Is it just not newsworthy? Here are some sites and a little commentary on them.

    “The Great Pacific Garbage Patch (also sometimes called the Eastern Garbage Patch) is an area with an intense concentration of marine trash located between Hawaii and California. The exact size of the patch is unknown however because it is constantly growing.”
    This is a youtube of a 5:12 minute CNN report. It is pretty informative and makes clear that the “island” is more a soupy mess than an actually visable land mass. The soupy mess is in the North Pacific Sup-tropical Gyre. A gyre is a giant eddy or circular ocean currents. It makes sense that if we tons of garbage a year makes it into our oceans, the stuff that doesn’t biodegrade could amass in a gyre. The stuff that doesn’t biodegrade is plastic, hence the island of plastic.
    “A heap of trash that's twice the size of Texas is floating somewhere between San Francisco and Hawaii. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, as it's called, is 80 percent plastic, and weighs in at 3.5 million tons. Trapped in a circular course by winds and currents, it's been around since the 1950s, and has been growing tenfold every decade. It's not a dumping ground in the sense that people are flying or boating by and throwing their refuse into the heap. Instead, it's picking up trash that originates onshore, and has since made its way out into the Pacific. Cleaning it up doesn't sound too likely, since the effort would cost billions, but it would be nice if we figured out a way to stop adding to it. Another possibility: turning it into a sort of anti-Disney World. Surely that would convert even the worst plastic-wasting offenders among us into ardent environmentalists.”—Gregory Mone
    Pravda, yes Pravda, basically reports the same statistics as Mr. Mone. They quote Marcus Eriksen of the Agalita Marine Research Foundation in Long Beach and Chris Parry of the California Coastal Commission in San Francisco.

I would read the Pravda story and watch the youtube. They seem to be the most informative and balanced in their reporting of the story. My feel for this Island of Trash that seems to be a “soupy mess” that is in the North Pacific Sup-tropical Gyre. I am sure there is a lot of plastic in the soupy mess but I am not sure how it was determined to be 3.5 million tons and growing by a factor of 10 every decade. I am sure it is indicative of the amount of plastic that is discarded every year. I am also certain that this is another excellent example of trading off the convenience and lower cost of plastic containers vs the right thing to do ecologically.

Going forward? I am definitely going to be a better recycler even though there is no guarantee where the plastics go after I dutifully put the green bin at the end of the driveway every Tuesday morning.

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