There is an "away," and it's called Midway Island. A tiny little dot in the South Pacific, Midway Island is one of the bodies of land nearest the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and has become a time capsule of our civilization's love of disposable plastics.
In the photo above you will notice the plastic bag. That is the actual collected contents from the stomach of a dead albatross found on the island during a recent expedition funded in part by the Plastic Pollution Coalition (PPC), a nonprofit dedicated to end the era of disposable, single-use plastic.
The albatross often mistakes floating plastic items for fish. Eventually the birds that feed in the Garbage Patch region fill their stomachs with plastic and die of starvation. Many of them make it to Midway Island where their remains — and the plastics they ate — have become a research tool for scientists trying to understand the scope of the plastic pollution problem.
At a fund-raising event for the PPC at the home of Irmelin DiCaprio in Malibu, we were shown the first shocking images from the expedition taken by famed environmental photographer Chris Jordan.
Ocean scientist J Nichols, founder of Ocean Revolution, discovered one piece of plastic (below) that actually carried a WARNING stating that if the piece of orange plastic were found it must be returned immediately to someone named ANNABELLE in Santa Rosa, or risk legal prosecution. Needless to say, he called and left a message.
The Plastic Pollution Coalition, in addition to creating a S.U.P.E.R. Hero pledge to eliminate single-use plastics, is hoping to create a Plastic Pollution Symposium in 2010.
The term "plastic pollution" is rarely used and, as it turns out, this is due in large part to restrictions placed on nonprofits like Ocean Conservancy (OC) that, despite doing great work to help clean up the oceans, receives funds from major plastics manufacturers on the condition that "plastic" is never referred to as a pollutant (this tidbit is from a confidential source affiliated with OC).
The polite term used to refer to the scourge of ocean-bound plastics is "ocean debris" a term Irmelin pointed out tends to evoke "floating driftwood," not the miles and miles of plastic bags, bottles, cups, toys, caps, 6-pack rings and syringes that make up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (which by the way is one of five such concentrations of marine plastic).
Here is a slideshow of the expedition, showing a sampling of plastics from Midway Island:
Unfortunately, the plastic that is visible to the naked eye is only a small part of the problem. Much worse is the "plastic soup," the term used by Capt. Charles Moore who discovered the Garbage Patch several years ago and coined the now widely used term. Below all the plastic floating on the surface is a soup of millions of tiny, partially decomposed plastic particles that closely resemble fish food.
According to recent studies, this form of plastic pollution is poisoning the entire oceanic biosphere, which in turn is poisoning anyone who eats seafood.
The problem is daunting. But an important first step is now being made by PPC to bring these images to the public's attention.
Jordan's photographs are indisputable and powerful. The skeletal remains of hundreds of birds whose worn, bleached bones contrast dramatically with the brightly colored plastics (which will never, ever biodegrade) are a bold reminder that plastics, like diamonds, are also forever.
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