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THE PLASTIC VORTEX
Much has been made of the need to conserve the dwindling resources of a world, which is growing in population, and therefore demand for consumer goods. One of the ways that the effect upon demand for raw materials can be minimised is recycling of the waste thrown away each day. The UK is currently in the grip of a recycling fervour that is to most of its citizens a novel idea and to others an inconvenience that they could well do without. In the past most household waste was collected from each house on a weekly basis by the local authority for disposal but very little recovery of recyclable materials ever took place. A great deal of the volume of household waste [trash] was sent to landfill sites and buried. The land was often recovered and later used for building but the decomposing rubbish beneath the surface was often responsible for the build up of “Radon” gas in basements and low lying areas, clearly this method of dealing with rubbish [trash] had its risks.
It was once said that man would drown in the rubbish he created long before he destroyed the species with atomic weapons and the only benefactor would be the rats that remained, if the culture of ignoring the mounting piles of trash had continued mans demise by his complacent attitude to the waste he produced was becoming a distinct possibility.
Recently new laws have forced local authorities to review the policies practised for many years with regard to the disposal of rubbish and the reclamation of precious raw materials. A recent study equated the volume of rubbish thrown out to the bodyweight of the one doing the throwing and it is now thought that each citizen of the UK throws away four times their own body weight in rubbish every year. In the past each house had one dustbin [trash can] [rubbish bin] and everything went into the same bin. It was collected weekly and disposed of at waste sites or tips and eventually compacted and buried.
That has now changed in a seed change of disposal culture that is being adopted council by council [council=local authority] across the country. No longer is there one bin for everything, now there are two “Wheely bins and two boxes”. The collections are no longer weekly but now fortnightly. The recoverable materials Glass, metal, plastics ect. Are placed in one of the boxes, Paper in the other box and “General” waste in one of the Wheely bins whilst the other Wheely bin is for “Green waste” but only one of the Wheely bins is emptied each week. The separation of recoverable material is done by the householder at the point of disposal and not by the authority at the waste disposal facilities. To begin with the change was not popular and attracted some resistance but as the scheme has gradually replaced old methods it has become more acceptable.
The previous systems however have left an indelible mark upon the environment of the world. Many countries have adopted the practise of dumping domestic waste at sea in the mistaken belief that the oceans are sufficiently vast to swallow such contamination with little detriment but it is becoming increasingly obvious that this is not so. A walk along any sea shore will illustrate the power of the ocean to reduce even the most impermeable rock to grains of sand given enough time for it to do so or erode the hardest of metals and finally dissolve it but there is a material that the oceans cannot reduce and it is being added to the oceans in ever more greater quantities every day. It is Plastic.
When domestic rubbish is dumped at sea most of it becomes water saturated and sinks to be “consumed” by the currents, which reduce it biodegradeably and eventually disperse it with little harmful effect. The increased use of plastics in packaging has however added a dimension to the waste that cannot be dealt with by the oceans. Unlike rock plastic does not sink to the ocean floor, it floats and whereas rock is essentially a hard solid substance plastic is pliable and deforms to absorb shock and therefore will not break down as quickly as other more natural wastes. It does shatter and reduce but the fragments float upon the surface rather than sink and as the fragments become smaller the surface of the ocean becomes covered in what can only be equated to a floating canopy of plastic splinters. In some parts of the oceans even the initial breakdown of plastics has ceased and the collecting canopy now includes plastic goods which are completely recognisable as items that could be bought in any store, such as disposable razors, ball point pens, condoms, packaging, plastic bags, tooth brushes, children’s toys in fact any plastic item designed to be thrown away after use. It is estimated that more than 80% of the plastic waste floating around on the surface of our oceans comes from the waste dumped at sea from the refuse generated domestically on land, the remaining 20% can be traced to the fishing/oil industries.
If the waste had the propensity to be driven to shore it might not be the potential ecological time bomb that it has become but because the debris floats it has and is being transported by the thermohaline currents of the oceans to specific areas where it collects and accumulates.
One such area is in the Northern Pacific ocean off the west coast of the USA to the east of the northwestern Hawaiian Islands where one such canopy of debris has collected. It has been called “The Plastic Vortex” because at its centre there is clear water surrounded by a sea of swirling plastic waste. The phenomenon looks like a whirlpool but on the surface and its rotation is driven by the sea currents that run between the Hawaiian Islands and the North American mainland. Its dimensions are growing daily and scientific opinion holds that the canopy could occupy an area equal to the size of Texas.
Greenpeace maintain that because the canopy has no organic structure it cannot degrade or disperse and because it is a floating mass it is preventing the photosynthesis of plant life. The organisation has been monitoring the Plastic Vortex and they believe that more than three hundred species of wildlife are at this moment under imminent threat of extinction because of the threat that the debris poses. The endangered list includes fish, molluscs, whales, sea lions, seals, turtles and unique plant life.
Wild life becomes tangled in the debris and where most species would regard anything that floats as food and consume it there is no nutrition to be derived from plastic and the incidence of sea creatures starving to death is becoming commonplace.
The debris can float carried upon the ocean currents for thousands of miles and some crustacia has attached itself to the floating mass, increasingly the population of crustacia not native to the area is rising upsetting the delicate ecological balance and in some cases thwarting the order of the food chain by the introduction of alien species. The area was recently designated a “National Monument” affording all of its wildlife a “Protected Status”.
The “Squirrel like” culture of burying waste was clearly not going to last forever, there are only so many holes in the ground where trash can be buried. Faced with impending new legislation demanding that as much domestic waste as possible is recycled some local authorities in the UK began to “Export” their waste for “Processing” to third world countries that would take it in order to avoid the penalties imposed by the legislation for not recycling.
A recent investigation of a waste tip in Indonesia turned up household bills for addresses in areas of the UK that had not at that time begun a recycling scheme and it is more than likely that some of that exported rubbish was dumped at sea along the route of the same currents that are now accumulating a swirling vortex of plastic waste near Hawaii.
The world population is now approaching 20 billion souls and all of them generate rubbish daily. It would be inaccurate to assume that the “Trash” levels throughout the world are constant but taking the average bodyweight as 150 pounds and assuming that one bodyweight is thrown away each year that is 20 billion times 150 pounds that must be processed every year, the oceans cannot take that level of contamination. It is estimated that there will be no wildlife in the area near Hawaii by 2060 if the Plastic Vortex remains unchecked. There are not enough holes in the ground to bury it all and even if there were the levels of radon would rise to universally toxic levels. It is not possible to continually deplete the natural resources that the Earth can bestow, at some time there will be nothing left to harvest and that time is fast approaching at an ever-increasing rate with the rise in world population. It is clear that trash thrown away in a small country in the northern hemisphere will not necessarily be processed in the country that created it though they are responsible for it and selling the problem to a third party does not absolve that responsibility.
The short term, hide it, bury it, sell it on culture has to stop now whilst there is still a planet left to save or are we content to live only at the centre of a Plastic Vortex of our own creation because that will be the only place left that anything will survive.
|Posted: November 14, 2006 |
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