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Microplastics are almost imperceptible to the human eye. Yet their impact on the environment is shocking ...
2021-07-05 09:00:00
Mind the climate

A Rubbish Island
The Problem of Microplastics

A Rubbish Island
A Rubbish Island

There are places in the world where the water is so thick with plastic that it looks like gelatine. Activists are rushing to rescue ocean creatures, either by cleaning up the floating islands of rubbish, or trying to live on them.

Read in 10 minutes

It’s twice the size of Texas. Three times the size of Finland. It lies between the Californian coast and Hawaii, but has no fixed location. It drifts, twirled by the Pacific currents; it grows and shrinks. Calling it an island is an exaggeration – strictly speaking, it’s not entitled to the name. Because what kind of an island is it that you can’t set foot on? Contrary to popular myth, you can’t see it from space. In fact, you can’t see it at all. The microplastics floating in the water are almost imperceptible, and that’s what the island of rubbish we’re talking about is largely made up of.

The formal name is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, or GPGP. It was discovered in 1997. It’s the best known, but not the only one. Similar accumulations of rubbish and microplastics are found between Hawaii and Japan. The islands are created by ocean currents, which push together plastic waste, drifting and unable to fully break down.

Other people’s waste

Since September 2017, the Great Patch even has residents. Former US Vice President Al Gore took on citizenship in front of the cameras. Most remember him for his presidential candidacy in 2000, when only a hand recount in Florida delivered a 537-vote victory to George W. Bush, who ultimately became president of the United States instead of Gore. After his loss, Gore largely concentrated on fighting the climate catastrophe, for which he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007. Gore’s not the only Garbage Islands passport-holder, to use the name of the fictitious state in the Great Pacific Patch. Other citizens include the British actors Judi Dench and Ross Kemp, as well as the British long-distance runner and four-time Olympic gold medallist Mo Farah.

One of London’s most highly esteemed creative duos, Dal & Mike, prepared the visual identification for everything that a fully-fledged state needs: passports, stamps and banknotes in the debris currency. The banknotes feature Tony Wilson illustrations of marine animals strangled by plastic, eating plastic bags, swimming in water thick with rubbish. The passport, designed by Maria Kerkstra, bears the fictional state’s seal and the motto ‘The Ocean needs us’.

The website LADbible hosted a petition for the UN to recognize the Garbage Islands. The goal was to gather one million signatures, and though it ended with just under 240,000, the campaign was noticed and remembered. But there was never any chance of UN recognition.

There are still few people who understand what rubbish patches really are. Many half-truths and urban legends are still swirling around. Photos of microplastics are so uninteresting that most articles about it are illustrated with news agency photos of mounds of plastic trash piling up as they float in the water. Not only does this not reflect the nature of the problem, it also multiplies misunderstanding.

Of course, large, perfectly tangible pieces of rubbish also drift around in the water. They build up around the middle of the Patch, where they’re pushed by ocean currents. But the main problem is actually much less visible. Greenpeace activists describe the Patch as a formation with a soup-like consistency, created by microplastics floating in the water. Here and there larger pieces float around, trapped in the mass, but most is imperceptible to the untrained eye.

Smaller, smallest

‘Microplastics’ is the collective name for all plastic objects with a diameter of less than five millimetres – that’s the definition from the US government’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. They’re used in products including glitter, toothpaste and sunscreen. They also occur as a result of the slow degradation of plastics, primarily ordinary plastic bottles made from polyethylene terephthalate (PET). Microplastics are the largest threat to marine life. Smaller fish eat them and are poisoned. Larger ones eat the smaller, poisoned ones, and so the plastic makes its way up the food chain.

Nurdles are one variety of microplastic. They’re also called ‘mermaids’ tears’, but they’re made up of deadly chemicals. They’re the stuff of all kinds of things made from plastic: from containers and bottles to TV sets. Nurdles are easy to transport; at the production plant they’re melted down and shaped into any form you like. Because they’re small and light, they can easily get into the atmosphere, rivers and seas.

They come in all the colours of the rainbow, and they sparkle in the water. Fish mistake them for food. Near the shore, they become hosts for persistent organic pollutants (POPs), which can remain on a nurdle for years. POPs don’t dissolve in water, but they do in fat – quite easily. The toxins that animals consume build up in their fatty tissue, and also travel up the food chain.

Nurdles are also colonized by microbes that are harmful to humans: tiny balls collected on popular beaches in Scotland’s East Lothian played host to E. coli bacteria. They can be so dangerous that scientists and volunteers collecting them from beaches are asked to put on safety gloves, not to touch them with their bare hands. Meanwhile, unsuspecting vacationers lie on them for hours.

In February 2018, one of the organizations that’s fighting against microplastics thoroughly combed Hightown Beach, a popular location near Liverpool. On a section of barely one kilometre, they found more than 140,000 nurdles, or an average of 138.9 per square metre of beach. It’s estimated that the UK releases 53 billion nurdles into the ocean every year – including both fabricated items from production sites or containers, and the tiny balls into which products have broken down again. That’s enough to make 88 million plastic bottles. But there’s an even smaller microplastic, the microbead, with a diameter of less than one millimetre. They’re usually made of polyethylene, and sometimes from other petrochemicals. They’re used primarily in cosmetic products, all types of peeling creams and toothpastes. Microbeads can easily slip through the screens in sewage systems and make it into rivers, and then into the sea. Research commissioned by SUNY Fredonia showed that each square mile of the Great Lakes contains 1.1 million to 1.5 million microbeads.

Today many countries have prohibited the production and sale of cosmetics containing microbeads. The first was the Netherlands, in 2016, quickly joined by several US states and South Korea. Even so, microplastics are still produced on a gigantic scale. In August 2020, near New Orleans, the wind blew a 12-metre transport container and 25 tonnes of nurdles into the Mississippi River, from which they flowed into the Gulf of Mexico. No official clean-up was organized, as the microplastic balls aren’t recognized as a hazardous material, and according to American law the military and the National Guard can go into action only when there’s a risk of a dangerous contamination of the biosphere. Nor was a clean-up organized two years later in Pennsylvania, when a lorry carrying a load of neon blue granules broke open. That time, too, the hazardous plastics got into the rivers.

Companies that make plastic prefabricates have signed a declaration that they conduct a ‘zero loss’ policy and are taking care to use more responsible transport. But this document has no legal status. As recently as in October 2020, the coast of South Africa near Cape Town was flooded with nurdles of an unknown origin. It looked like a repeat of the situation from 2017, when a Saudi company transporting plastic microbeads lost a 47-tonne load. At that time, the Saudis had to pay for the clean-up, which at least attempted to minimize the environmental pollution. But in October 2020 nobody was caught red-handed, and no transport company announced it had lost a load. Go whistle for it.

Today we know that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch comprises about 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic. A trillion is 10 to the 12th power, a million millions, a one followed by 12 zeros. A trillion seconds is almost 32,000 years. Microplastics make up 8% of the Patch, whose weight is estimated at 79,000 tonnes.

In 2019, the Patch was thoroughly researched. It turned out that as much as 46% of the rubbish large enough to be identified is the remnants of fishing gear. We’re talking primarily about various kinds of nets – from classic ones, through eel traps, to oyster nets that are anchored to the ocean floor (as well as buckets, crates and other containers used to hold the catch). Laurent Lebreton, the oceanographer who led the research, told National Geographic: “I knew there would be a lot of fishing gear, but 46 percent was unexpectedly high. Initially, we thought fishing gear would be more in the 20 percent range. That is the accepted number [for marine debris] globally – 20 percent from fishing sources and 80 percent from land.”

George Leonard, head of the American non-profit Ocean Conservancy, was also surprised at the results of the research: “The interesting piece is that at least half of what they’re finding is not consumer plastics, which are central to much of the current debate, but fishing gear. This study is confirmation that we know abandoned and lost gear is an important source of mortality for a whole host of animals.”

Ghost nets – fishing nets that are abandoned or torn away – strangle, entangle or choke about 100,000 marine animals every year: birds, fish, seals. In January 2019, the young sperm whale Digit gained fame after he found a silver lining due to being from a whale family under close observation by the biologist Shane Gero of Aarhus University. Digit got tangled up in a thick, heavy rope, which wrapped around the base of his tail. It didn’t look like mortal danger; a young whale got lassoed. But the rope wasn’t just seriously weighing him down; most of all, it made it impossible for him to dive. A sperm whale that can’t dive is sentenced to die of starvation. Fortunately Digit was freed, though the entire operation took almost three years. Still, oceanographers calculate that every year about 70-80 whales get tangled up in nets or other plastic waste. And that’s just in US waters.

The kids are cleaning up

The forecasts are nightmarish. Canadian Environment Minister Catherine McKenna says that at the current rate at which the world’s waters are being poisoned, as early as 2050 there will be more plastic than fish in the seas. Immediate, radical action is needed. One of the organizations that’s a source of hope is The Ocean Cleanup, a dynamic NGO founded in 2013 in the Netherlands by Boyan Slat, today a 26-year-old activist. 10 years ago, while a teenager on vacation in Greece, he went diving and saw more plastic than sea creatures. So after returning to school, Slat prepared a water pollution project and then devoted all his energy and attention to the problem of cleaning up the oceans. In a crowdfunding campaign, The Ocean Cleanup collected more than $2.2 million to start out with, from 38,000 donors in 160 countries. Today, donations and other financing have exceeded $33 million.

The Ocean Cleanup’s big idea is 600-metre wind-powered floating rubbish collection systems. They don’t need any external power sources – they use currents to carry them to the places in the ocean with the highest concentrations of pollution. The U-shaped platforms will drift in the vortices of the North Pacific and collect floating rubbish, then deliver it to tender ships. The first such system was introduced in 2018, and The Ocean Cleanup estimates that by 2025 it will be able to collect 50% of the pollution in the area of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The devices are emptied every four to six weeks; the plastic they collect is transported to shore and then recycled.

It sounds nice, but the platforms are far from ideal, if only because they only capture waste with a diameter greater than one centimetre. So they don’t solve the problem of microbeads and nurdles. But they’re a step in the right direction.

The Ocean Cleanup is testing another device that works on a similar principle, powered by the sun, that will clean up rivers. Research commissioned by the foundation shows that from 1.1 million to 2.4 million tonnes of plastics make it into the oceans from rivers each year. Asian rivers are responsible for as much as 86% of this pollution.

Alongside Greta Thunberg, Slat is yet another young activist who’s not waiting for the politicians from their parents’ and grandparents’ generation to fix the world. Young people are no longer counting on help from their elders. They’re taking matters into their own hands.

 

Translated from the Polish by Nathaniel Espino

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Piotr Żelazny

was born in 1982. From 1983, he wanted to become a sports journalist, which is why he allowed himself the luxury of studying philosophy. Not content with simply founding the independent football magazine “Kopalnia – szuka futbolu”, he also writes for, edits and publishes his creation.