Plastic Ocean

Plastic Ocean
It began with a line of plastic bags ghosting the surface, followed by an ugly tangle of junk: nets and ropes and bottles, motor-oil jugs and cracked bath toys, a mangled tarp. Tires. A traffic cone. [...] Dragging a fine-meshed net he discovered minuscule pieces of plastic, some barely visible to the eye, swirling like fish food throughout the water. He and his researchers parsed, measured, and sorted their samples and arrived at the following conclusion: By weight, this swath of sea contains six times as much plastic as it does plankton.

The North Pacific gyre is only one of five such high-pressure zones in the oceans. There are similar areas in the South Pacific, the North and South Atlantic, and the Indian Ocean. Each of these gyres has its own version of the Garbage Patch, as plastic gathers in the currents. Together, these areas cover 40 percent of the sea. "That corresponds to a quarter of the earth's surface," Moore says. "So 25 percent of our planet is a toilet that never flushes."

BPA has been found in nearly every human who has been tested in the United States. We're eating these plasticizing additives, drinking them, breathing them, and absorbing them through our skin every single day. [...] "Findings suggest that developmental exposure to BPA is contributing to the obesity epidemic that has occurred during the last two decades in the developed world, associated with the dramatic increase in the amount of plastic being produced each year." Given this, it is perhaps not entirely coincidental that America's staggering rise in diabetes -- a 735 percent increase since 1935 -- follows the same arc.

"Except for the small amount that's been incinerated -- and it's a very small amount -- every bit of plastic ever made still exists." [...] "It's not the big trash on the beach. It's the fact that the whole biosphere is becoming mixed with these plastic particles. What are they doing to us? We're breathing them, the fish are eating them, they're in our hair, they're in our skin."

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36 Responses:

  1. detritus says:

    Turtle thinspiration!

  2. phoenixredux says:

    Fate can take strange forms, and so perhaps it does not seem unusual that Captain Charles Moore found his life's purpose in a nightmare. Unfortunately, he was awake at the time, and 800 miles north of Hawaii in the Pacific Ocean.

    It's not plastic. At that range, 800 miles north of Hawaii, he's discovered Gilligan's Island!

    And those meathooks? They're also plastic. It never ends.

  3. ammonoid says:

    I love the fact that they are called nurdles.

    The nurdles are coming to get us!

    • Nurdles is what my brother and I used to call the lumps that appear in curdled milk, and also the lumps in badly-dissolved powdered milk. Any way you slice it, nurdles are gross!

  4. autodidactic says:

    Jesus, this is depressing. Plastic is to modern society as lead was to Rome.

    Too bad everything I like has plastic in it. :P

  5. Findings suggest that developmental exposure to BPA is contributing to the obesity epidemic that has occurred during the last two decades in the developed world
    It's kinda strange, this talk about ZOMFG GLOBAL plastic poisoning, that causes obesity only in developed countries.

    • ammonoid says:

      That thought struck me too. Plastic is rather ubiquitous in developing countries too, yet no obesity epidemic.

      • heresiarch says:

        obesity is on the rise in many parts of the world that are industrializing, although i agree that plasticizing chemicals alone are unlikely to be the sole cause. however, i don't think plastic is as ubiquitous in developing countries as in industrial nations -- countries like China and India may be producing more and more plastic products, but people in most of the world still don't consume at the rate we do in the US. and our version of consumption = disposable -- think about all the food packaging and shopping bags and cheap electronics Americans use (and often throw away) every day. americans still use and consume a disproportionate amount of the world's resources, including petroleum products.

      • Maybe (coz it's impolite now to strongly assert your point of view in these matters) it's because people in developed countries eat too much?

        There is quite an insightful post here:, though I cannot adhere to the conclusions that author had obtained through pushing some of his ideas somewhat out of their original domain.

        But here is the relevant quote:
        "A candy bar is a superstimulus: it contains more concentrated sugar, salt, and fat than anything that exists in the ancestral environment. A candy bar matches taste buds that evolved in a hunter-gatherer environment, but it matches those taste buds much more strongly than anything that actually existed in the hunter-gatherer environment. The signal that once reliably correlated to healthy food has been hijacked"

  6. lordshell says:

    I find it dubious that plastic has anything to do with obesity.

    Wealth and an abundance of food are the likely suspects.

  7. Dude...Unless I am mistaken, that is not a sea turtle. That appears to be a snapping turtle, the kind that live in fresh water. This one picture, if false, could undermine the whole point of a good article. If they are wrong and they know it, what else may they have falsified?

    • sc00ter says:

      I feel the same way when I see articles about air pollution showing nuclear cooling towers.

    • g_na says:

      That is not, in fact, a sea turtle (note its claws), and it does look like a snapping turtle. But I don't think that undermines the point of the article, which is we that we have too much debris around, plastic and otherwise, and because of it various creatures are suffering and dying.

      • I am simply less likely to trust the source of the article, and the article's general credibility. I do, however, believe we have way too much crap just floating around out there - and the ocean has been treated like a dumping ground.

  8. loosechanj says:

    What *isn't* "contributing to the obesity epidemic"?

  9. mattpo says:

    I heard there are some sunken nuclear subs with neurotoxins and warheads at the bottom of the ocean, that'll be fun for everyone when the rust finally eats through.

    Have you heard of Morgellions? Conspiracy hippies love it, but it may be an expression of so much goddamn plastic and nano stuff everywhere!!

    • 205guy says:

      Or when the bottom-net trawlers hit some uncharted dumping grounds: [it's all flash, choose "The Hebrides..."
      and read the text associated with the 8th photo titled "Dump"]:

      "The Beaufort Dyke, a stretch of deep water between the coasts of
      Scotland and Northern Ireland was used for the dumping of munitions
      and radioactive waste int eh years after WW2 when the Ministry of
      Defence needed to dispose of a considerable stockpile of US, British
      and captured German weapons. Since then an estimated 1.17 million
      tonnes of weapons were jettsioned off boats, supposedly into the
      Dyke. [...] The Aquilon, a Breton-based trawler, had been fishing
      outside the 12-mile exclusion zone of the Beaufort Dyke in waters
      officially deemed safe. On July evening in 1969, [...] while
      emptying the nets her crew were contaminated with the mustard gas
      eporite. The two fishermen wors affected had skin and hair peeling
      away [...] In 1995 the Beaufort Dyke hit the headlines after 4000
      phosphorus incendiary bombs were washed up on Mull, Oban, Arran and
      other parts of Scotland's west coast. [...] It seems a British Gas
      pipeline has been laid through the heart of the dump and the
      trenching machine used to bury the pipeline had dispersed thousands
      of shells. [...] The British Gas trench ran outside the official
      site of the weapons dump, but in a classic case of incompetence and
      laziness, a series of articles in The Independent and New Scientist,
      showed that bombs had been dumped well short of the intended site
      and a great number had lain not more than 3 miles offshore, in as
      little as 50m of water. [...] Retired seamen who sailed on dumping
      expeditions in the 1940s confirmed that in poor weather, the ships
      discharged their cargoes no more than a few hundred metres offshore.
      [...] Anecdotal evidence from mariners, including crews of the
      Stranraer/Larne ferries, says that deep, underwater explosions can
      often be heard when passing over the Beaufort Dyke."

      Hawaii, which is closest to the Gyre, also has munitions, toxic, and radioactive dumping grounds. Think of that next time you go snorkeling there...

      A picture is worth 2 million plastic bottles (US consumption every 5 minutes):
      [second image on page, also plastic bags further down]

      • 205guy says:

        Gah, sorry about the lack of formatting.

      • I lived in Hawaii, and although Kaholawe was used as a bombing site, it's water is still some of the cleanest in the ocean that I've swam in. Think about that a bit. But you know, my sis, snarkyshark2 sometimes takes ocean water samples to her teacher, so she could tell you a lot. Especially about marine plankton. ;)

        • 205guy says:

          Nobody is claiming the water is polluted right now, it just seems like it has the potential to be catastrophically so. One area is called Ordnance Reef by the locals. The water's so clear you can see the munitions (with low-res photos):

          "They are covered in coral and blended into the environment out
          there, which is teeming with sea life," he said. "We didn't want
          to disrupt the corals to see how many munitions were underneath."
          The munitions were found in depths ranging from 24 feet to the
          maximum depth of the study area, 300 feet.

          Here's another article about the toxic and radioactive dumping:

          "at least 16,000 mustard-filled 100-pound bombs were dumped as
          close as five miles off the islands in 1944 under the Army's
          secret ocean-dumping program. In 1976, a fisherman in Hawaii
          was burned when he brought up an Army mortar filled with mustard
          gas [...] 64 million pounds of liquid nerve and mustard agents
          in one-ton steel canisters were secretly dumped into the ocean.
          Some 400,000 chemical-filled bombs, land mines and rockets and
          more than 500 tons of radioactive waste were either tossed
          overboard or packed into holds of scuttled vessels, the paper

          It's not clear whether those last numbers are for the Hawaii dumps alone, or all the ones off US coasts. So I'm not sure if Hawaii has the radioactive waste dumps, though I've heard about depleted uranium on land-based bombing ranges.

  10. arpad says:

    Some times ago the popular theme was "plastic never decay". Now it is "we surrounded by plastic".

    I smell grant hungry scientists. They are product of education epidemic in developed world. They are in our schools, they are in our government, they advice our town council, they are in our bank, they are in our pockets...


  11. heresiarch says:

    scary stuff -- i posted about this article a couple of weeks ago. as far as i can tell, plastic really shouldn't be considered a "disposable" product, since it can't biodegrade easily, and gives off nasty plasticizing chemicals into the environment.

    • wfaulk says:

      A few years back, there were ads for the plastic industry on TV. They said, "look at all these great things that wouldn't have been possible without plastic." And each of those things they showed were things that were non-disposable. It was all artificial hearts and, uh, I can't think what else. They notably didn't show Bic pens, plastic grocery bags, and soda can yokes.

      Plastic itself is not a problem. It's the notion that it's so cheap that it's easier to throw it away and make new plastic than bother trying to reuse it.

      • heresiarch says:

        personally, i think it's fascinating that a material which cannot break down is thought of as "disposable" in the first place -- exactly how are we going to dispose of it? i tend to agree that the problem is cheap plastic packaging and grocery bags and single-use "throwaway" items, and i'm trying to figure out how i can effectively cut down on the amount of disposable plastic i consume (since plastic recycling is mostly a non-starter).

        as a more permanent material, i agree that plastic is often useful, though i still have doubts about it. partly because even multi-use items get disposed of eventually (cellphones, nalgene bottles, tuppperware, inkjet printers, cars, etc.), and partly because of the chemicals used to make plastics which can off-gas. like PVC or bisphenol-A -- really not compounds you want much exposure to.

        mostly, i'd like to see manufacturers responsible for the life of their products, including a plan to reuse or recycle their components. right now, companies can make and sell as many nurdles and shopping bags and plastic packaging as they want without consequence to them -- municipalities have to deal with waste disposal and sanitation issues. so the extra profit made by selling cheaper products comes at the cost of taxpayers cum consumers.

  12. prof_null says:

    I just wonder what's going to happen when the oil starts to run out - it would be great if people started collecting all that plastic waste and recycling it, but there is one serious flaw in the idea - any sort of collecting machinery will need power to run . . . . . where's that going to come from if there's no cheap oil? This also reminds me of a book I once read called "Mutant 59" about a bacteria that mutated to eat plastic. Great idea or catastrophe? We are sooooo screwed.

  13. static_panic says:

    Plastic is ubiquitous.

    I've been in Tokyo two weeks and the amount of plastic they throw away in this one city alone is absolutely amazing. However, to give them credit they are one of the few countries with an extensive and efficient waste management system (ie: incineration + recycling).

    It's not just plastic products either -- ships that are moving pellets which are used be manufacturers are lost at sea all the time.

    Maybe our purpose in existing is to produce plastic in order to spark the evolution of our new plastic overlords -- but either way, that turtle looks sad. He prolly got made fun of a lot in turtle school. Poor guy.

    I'm a bit of a self-hating fan of plastics. They're so useful and cheap!

    I think it's the pathetic lack of waste management technology that really gets me angry when I think about it. We know plastic is nigh-indestructible since we invented it... why haven't we thought of a way to manage the plastic life-cycle?

    Just throwing it into the water isn't going to be the cheaper option in the bigger picture.