The great Pacific Ocean garbage patch

Recently I was shocked to hear of an area in the Pacific Ocean somewhat north of a line between San Francisco and Hawaii that is simply a heap of trash twice the size of Texas! Just as things tend to drift toward the drain in your bathtub when the water is being emptied, this trash has gravitated to this area for decades because of prevailing wind and current conditions.

Could this be true? On occasion, there are stories that are too wild to believe. Maybe this one fits that category, or maybe it doesn’t. Twice the size of Texas is a big area. It sounds unlikely to me, if only because occasional hurricanes have a tendency to move things around a little bit. But people report that they have seen it, and about 90% of the trash is said to be composed of plastic, and the layer of trash varies between 3 inches and 300 feet thick!

Well, after doing some research on plastic, I discovered that it goes into about 225 million tons of products in the world each year. Most of the plastic is manufactured from petroleum, but some also comes from natural gas. So in addition to pollution problems, this has more than just a minor effect on our country’s importation of oil.

And our usage of plastic is increasing. For example, each person in our country consumed an average of 1.6 gallons of bottled water in 1976. That increased to 10.5 gallons in 1993, 22.6 gallons in 2003 and 28.3 gallons in 2006.

As a result, 3.3 billion plastic water bottles were sold in 1997, and 15 billion were sold in 2002. That is a lot of plastic, and the amount is growing, since plastic containers are almost completely replacing those made of glass. In fact, there is even talk of putting expensive wines into plastic bottles.

Since most of the bottled water is consumed away from home, only a small amount of the plastic bottles are recycled, and that rate is decreasing. For example, about 53% of the plastic water bottles were recycled in 1994, but only about 19% were recycled in 2003.

The rest often find their way onto the streets, where many of them eventually flow into drains and out into the ocean.

Today, only 11 states have plastic bottle recycling laws and, of those, only three include plastic water bottles in their programs. They are California, Hawaii and Maine. That is shortsighted, because where there are recycling laws, about four of five bottles are recycled. And in states such as Michigan, which has a return rate of 10 cents per bottle, a full 95% of the bottles are recycled.

When I was growing up, a friend of mine and I routinely went to housing construction sites and picked up the soda bottles, which had a 2-cent return rate. Of course, we did it to make money. By the way, the beer bottles back then did not require a deposit, so we left them alone. Just another example that “Incentives Matter!”

As further proof, we don’t see many aluminum cans littering our cities and highways today, because either the consumer holds onto them for their return value, or various “Dumpster divers” hunt them down and return them for the money.

The same phenomenon explains why used hypodermic needles and syringes are mostly not found on streets and in parks in cities that have needle exchange facilities. As a result, those programs protect people from inadvertently stepping upon a dirty needle and thereby sometimes contracting AIDS or hepatitis!

So why don’t more states have plastic bottle recycling laws? For the same reason: Incentives matter. The water industry knows it will sell more product if the merchants don’t have to charge the return rates, and the beverage industry has more political clout than the environmental groups.

But recycling is a good idea for more reasons than merely cutting down on pollution. For example, the energy saved from making just one aluminum can from a recycled one instead of starting from scratch is enough to power a television set or computer for three hours, or power a 100-watt bulb for 20 hours! And the energy saved from recycling a six-pack of aluminum cans is able to move a standard-sized automobile about five miles.

Similarly, the energy saved from recycling a one-gallon milk jug will power a 100-watt bulb for 11 hours. And recycling a one-foot stack of newspapers will save enough energy to heat a standard-sized home for 17 hours.

So when we see that, of the estimated 28 billion water bottles that are consumed each year in our country, only about 20% of them are recycled, we can see how wasteful we are. And the other 80% either end up in landfills, or as litter that either pollutes our countryside, or ends up in the ocean.

To make matters worse, plastic is not biodegradable, like most of the more natural products. Instead, it is photodegradable, which means that the sun’s rays will make it brittle, similar to what the rays do to the vinyl roof of an automobile. That will cause the plastic to break into smaller pieces, and eventually emerge as a fine dust. But otherwise, it takes decades to break it down further.

So instead of being good stewards of the Earth, we are literally fouling our own nest! And in addition to the pollution issues, many of the birds and fish confuse plastic trash for jellyfish and other food. So when they eat the plastic, the wild beings can’t either digest it or expel it, which means that many of them simply starve to death with their stomachs full of plastic.

All of this is disturbing, but what can we do? Obviously, this is a monumental problem, and each of us is only one person. Nevertheless, we can all help by using recycling programs to the fullest, and also by insisting that legislators from all over the country pass recycling laws. And when asked “paper or plastic,” we can choose paper.

Or better yet, we can form the habit of taking canvas bags with us to do our shopping. And we can also remember to decline using a bag at all when it is not necessary.

In the final analysis, whether this trash dump story is true or not, the problems of plastic trash disposal are enormous. But like with so many other things, the resolution is up to us, and every effort helps!

Judge Jim Gray (Ret.)