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<p>Artwork by Mandy Barker.</p>

Artwork by Mandy Barker.

A Deadly Brew Choking The Oceans

Our rubbish converges into floating tips, kilometres wide. There are seven “garbage patches” in our oceans now, spreading toxins and killing marine life around the world.

Out there, in the distant reaches of the ocean, currents collect tiny bits and bobs, pushing them together into a churning, deadly soup. Some of the materials gathered up are larger — toothbrushes, toys, tangled breakaway fishing nets. All of them are made of plastic.

Across the world's oceans it is estimated that there are at least seven distinct "garbage patches" where plastics sloughed from shore make their way to mingle.

“Plastics can float around the ocean picking up toxins… they are like toxic little pills that are then ingested.”

Other types of refuse break down over time, or sink — leaden and waterlogged to the murky fathoms.

The garbage collects in the five subtropical gyres, where currents converge and pull together the collected waste that comes to span kilometres.

Sometimes the waste reaches down below the surface, in the water columns, making it impossible for marine life to avoid.

The flotsam rolls with the tides into shore, beating up the beaches of islands in their path, including the Galapagos, Hawaii and Easter Island. Fishing nets — made to last and sometimes lost at sea — will tear a beach apart as they break with the waves along the coast, their hard-wearing strands, pushed back and forth by the tides, eroding the shoreline.

What doesn't sink into the depths, where it may be consumed by fish and marine life, bobs along the top - where sea birds skim for food but often find instead that what they've ingested clogs their gullets and decays their stomach walls. When these unfortunate birds eventually waste away on shore, their rotten plumage is studded with the often brightly coloured, insoluble leftovers. Turtles too, will consume this plastic, as will pretty much every animal that comes across it in their search for food.

This is a recent phenomenon.

Since the 1950s, plastics have been finding their way to sea. Through direct dumping of waste into the ocean — a practice that has since been largely stopped — through people littering around water catchments; open storm water drains carrying refuse out to sea and natural disasters sweeping massive amounts of land-bound waste into the oceans. The plastic is what remains, because it is not broken down by the elements and it does not sink to the ocean floor.

Scientists at the fore of research into this problem estimate that the garbage accumulation has occurred predominately over the past 50 years, as our love of plastics has grown and grown.

Marcus Eriksen, the director of project development for the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, says the problem has affected more than 300 species of marine animals, with millions of individual animals suffering because of the plastics.

<p>Artwork by Mandy Barker.</p>

Artwork by Mandy Barker.

"This is across the board. It's sea birds, it's marine reptiles, it's marine mammals and a long list of fish that are consuming plastics," he says. "Plastics can float around the ocean picking up toxins… they are like toxic little pills that are then ingested."

The United Nations Environment Program produced an overview of marine litter in 2005. That report estimated that 6.4 million tonnes of litter were dumped in the ocean every year, and that 13,000 pieces of plastic litter float on "every square kilometre of ocean today".

That was seven years ago, and since then the problem has continued to grow. Eriksen estimates that the Japanese tsunami of March 2011 alone would have dumped a further 5 million to 20 million tonnes of refuse in the sea.

"We estimate that between 5 and 20 million tonnes of trash left the coastline of Japan… most of that is construction waste, so all the wood is gone by now. Wood doesn't last more than a year at sea, six months or less even.

"The only things left are going to be types of plastic… and anything that's trapping air. Which could range from light bulbs to cigarette lighters. I'm guessing with luck maybe a million tonnes or less of plastic," he says.

“The fish that we harvest to feed the world are eating the fish that eat that trash.”

That much plastic piled together on land, says Eriksen, would be roughly the size of the largest Egyptian pyramid: "Imagine that being stuffed with plastic."

But that's from just one event. Overall, the size of the plastic pollution problem is much larger.

"The five subtropical gyres represent roughly 25 percent of the planet's surface — 40 per cent of the ocean, but 25 per cent of the total planet's surface.

"I've been to all five (gyres), and all of them are peppered with this confetti of broken-down, micro particles.

"So in less than 50 years we've covered a quarter of the planet in some of the remotest parts of the ocean with our trash. The fish that we harvest to feed the world are eating the fish that eat that trash," Eriksen says.

<p>Artwork by Mandy Barker.</p>

Artwork by Mandy Barker.

Based in California, Eriksen is about to embark on another trip into the plastic soup. The expedition will track the scale of the problem in the western North Pacific patch, which lies between Japan and Hawaii.

Once he has completed that trip, Eriksen will have visited all seven known conversion points — garbage patches — for the ocean's plastics. He says the problem is most severe in the northern hemisphere.

The UNEP report says marine litter poses a "dire, vast and growing threat to the marine and coastal environment.

"Every year the presence of marine litter causes damage that entails great economic costs and losses to people, property and livelihood, as well as poses risks to health and even lives. And marine litter spoils, fouls and destroys the beauty of the sea and the costal zone," it says.

Eriksen says one of the big problems with plastics is that their surfaces can trap toxins that then travel long distances, spreading throughout the ocean to be ingested by marine life far from the garbage patch itself.

“Every year the presence of marine litter causes damage that entails great economic costs and losses to people, property and livelihood, as well as poses risks to health and even lives.”

Indeed, the problems are many. And the solution, while simple, is very complex to enforce. As Eriksen says, we need to stop putting plastics in the ocean. "We can fix it if we can stop adding more plastic. If we stop adding more plastic, what's out there now will wash ashore. It will take a while, but it will wash ashore," he says.

Eriksen says when people find out about the problem, they always want to help solve it. Raising awareness is a key goal of Five Gyres, the organisation he set up to map and combat the marine plastics problem.

UK-based artist Mandy Barker was working on a project where she planned to collect natural objects from along the shoreline when she noticed that there was a large amount of debris washing up. So she changed plans, and instead created works with the man-made items instead.

"There was more and more man-made debris amongst them. Combined with this I came across the image of an albatross chick carcass, the bird having died from ingesting plastics mistaken for food collected from the 'garbage patch', its stomach full of cigarette lighters and bottle tops. Following further research of how plastics affect marine life and ultimately end up in the human food chain, it was a subject I felt I could not turn away from," she says, in an email.

And so she created SOUP.

The Japanese tsunami of March 2011 would have dumped a further 5 to 25 million tonnes of refuse in the sea alone.

It's a stunning collection of photographic works based on items she gathered from beaches around the world, with one made up entirely of fragmented toy turtles washed up in a large group.

"I have had a huge response to SOUP from all over the world. Some people have commented that they haven't heard of the 'garbage patch' and how they didn't know such a problem existed. Others have been shocked by the diverse content of plastics found and have asked what can be done, setting up their own blogs and social networking sites in response," Barker says.

Plastics dominate the marine litter landscape, and land-based plastics are the majority of the rubbish floating around in the oceans, according to an article on the problem published in the Royal Society's scientific journal Philosophical Transactions B.

Recycling alone won't fix the problem, as only a fraction of produced plastics can be recycled, Eriksen says. He wants better regulation of the plastics industry, including rules restricting what kind of plastics can be produced for consumer products as well as regulation on the destruction of non-recyclable plastics.

Clean-ups of polluted oceans and coastlines, another part of Eriksen's approach, can be expensive. The UNEP report found that as far back as 1996, communities in the north sea region were spending about "USD6 million annually on cleaning their beaches in order to maintain their recreational values and keep them safe for beachgoers".

So solving the garbage patch problem is not only expensive but also a logistically difficult operation that would involve a combination of clean-up, regulation and upgrade work to reduce the amount of plastics in our oceans.

Still, Eriksen is upbeat that there will be a way to co-ordinate the clean-up and ensure better marine health in the future. And that largely the solution will come through public education, legislative control and action by manufacturers to create less nonrecyclable waste.

"It has all got to happen simultaneously for it to work. I'm an optimist. I give a lot of presentations where everyone I talk to responds with: 'What can I do, how can I help?'" he says.

"Plastic has a place in society [but] we need industry coordination in all of this… Recycling yes, but containment has to happen to stop plastics entering our storm water drains and then our oceans. We need to improve waste collection, have more bin collection and more bins out there to collect trash. Instead of landfill, we need to look to some very efficient waste energy systems."

For example, plastics can be incinerated at high temperatures to create energy that can be used for electricity production, Eriksen says.

Plastics are here to stay, but how we dispose of what we use, and regulate what is produced, will determine how invasive we allow them to become.

For more images by Mandy Barker, visit the photographer's website.

11 comments on this story
by Peter

Thanks for bringing the extent of the area to notice. I was aware of the problem, but did not realize what a huge area it included.

Good to have Global Mail and hope there are many more stories to keep the environment in the news.

March 20, 2012 @ 2:26pm
by Mightymum

Another well-written and informative article from the Global Mail. I had no idea of the scale of this issue. I just wish the mainstream media would report on things that really matter. But maybe the vast majority of people just don't care or want to know and there in lies the problem. I am loving this site. Keep it coming.

March 20, 2012 @ 6:01pm
by Tanya

It's fanastic to see that finally these hidden demons of our oceans are finally being brought to public attention!!
When we throw rubbish out how many people can honestly say that they give a thought to where our waste goes?
Who gives a second thought to what the beautiful prawns or lobster etc we eat, have been eating?
My question do we even begin to fix a problem of this magnitude?
Thanks for your incredible story!

March 21, 2012 @ 1:03pm
by Tony

Recycling ought to include re-use as well. We produce plastic containers (from a finite resource) that can last for years and use them only once.

March 21, 2012 @ 2:04pm
by LMK

This is an issue that affects everyone and everything, but it's so big that nobody seems to know what to do about it or even where to start.
Mandy Barker's artwork is absolutely stunning. She manages to make images that are compellingly beautiful, yet sinister and claustrophobic.

March 21, 2012 @ 9:40pm
by Old woman of the north

I see these images are ARTWORK -where are the images of these giant masses of rubbish? If they are as big as you say then they should be visible from satellites as they can take very detailed pictures.

Of course rubbish should be controlled and destroyed or recycled but writing emotional rubbish without any facts included is silly and counter productive if you wish to do something.

March 21, 2012 @ 10:50pm
by Francesca

What can we do about this problem?
Take 3!
Take 3 is an idea, initiated by a group of surfer mates, to pick up 3 pieces of litter.
Instead of walking past litter, with the mentality " I didn't drop it, so why should I pick it up" Pick it up, pick up 3 pieces, put it in the bin.
You will feel good and your actions could well save a whale, turtle or dolphin.
Am loving The Global Mail.

March 22, 2012 @ 11:21am
by Roblpttman

Reply to Old woman of the north.
You are wrong to put this article down as this is a genuine problem. There are photos on the net, easily found so go look and don't talk crap.

One area of the ocean even has a wing from a crashed WW2 war plane floating in with all the plastic. This one piece of rubbish covers many square kilometres.

March 23, 2012 @ 6:45pm
Show previous 8 comments
by Toby

A very emotive, one-sided and apparently un-researched/fact-checked article.

That all of your artwork for the article is actually the work of an artist with an agenda begs some serious credibility questions. You couldn't find any imagery of where these alleged rubbish tips are in the ocean, or *gasp* an actual photograph of said rubbish islands? Is there any imagery of these "islands"? Do they even exist? Google Earth certainly doesn't show any shots of any clumps of rubbish floating around in the middle of the ocean.

You contradict yourself a couple of times -

- is it over seven gyres, or are there five major gyres?
- Does rubbish get washed into the gyre and then end up washed onto a beach as quoted? That seems contradictory.
- Plastic floats around the ocean picking up toxins?? How is that even possible? And wouldn't that be a good thing?
- A baby bird was seen on the beach by a celebrity with cigarette lighters (plural) in it's gut. What an amazingly fortuitous thing for someone looking for an emotive quote to have seen. Spare me.

Littering in the ocean is a serious problem, but sloppily going for poignancy rather than accuracy places serious doubts over the credibility of the whole story.

March 24, 2012 @ 11:31am
by tim

If you have been alive for the last twenty years you would have heard about these rubbish deposits in the ocean. Go to Google, you may have heard of it.

March 25, 2012 @ 7:16pm
by Richard

In response to Toby:

You are unlikely to see the plastic using satellite images from Google Earth because the size of most of it is below the resolution of the images. It may possibly show up in non-visible parts of the light spectrum. It is generally not a solid carpet, simply a concentration of a lot of floating plastic, much of it invisible even to the naked eye, but unfortunately plankton sized. The carpet type effect does occur, but usually in more enclosed bodies of water.

I see no contradiction: There are five major gyres: North Atlantic, South Atlantic. North Pacific, South Pacific and the Indian ocean. There are many more gyres, and depending on the scale used for the definition probably thousands – numbers in Port Phillip, Sydney Harbour for example, as well as in the open ocean.

Plastics will move into and out of the gyres, but the nature of the currents does mean that material will tend to concentrate in these circulations. A similar effect is often observable in a river.

Plastics tend to concentrate organic toxins. Organic toxins are by nature oily substances, they are hydrophobic (Oil and water don’t mix). Plastics are also oil based, albeit usually solid substances, so the organic chemicals tend to migrate away from the water and concentrate around the plastic particles to minimise surface area exposed to water; olive oil forming circular drops on the pasta water is an analogous phenomenon. As Toby points out, this could be considered a good thing in that it concentrates the toxins, but only if we then remove the plastic with attached toxins from the environment. The trouble is, we don’t, and because in the eyes (literally in some cases) of marine and bird life these pieces of plastic mimic food (anything from squid to plankton) the plastics and the toxins end up in the marine (and later the human) food chain. This is generally considered a bad thing.

I’m not sure I understand Toby’s point about the celebrity, but there are thousands of examples of animals of many types ingesting enough plastic to contribute substantially to their death either chemically or mechanically.
Congratulations on an interesting and informative article.

April 20, 2012 @ 3:32pm
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