January 27, 2014

Something A little Different From Me

A few weeks ago I was approached by a freelance writer based in England. He wanted to submit a guest post on a topic important to him that he thought Satisfying Retirement readers might find interesting and important.

initially I told him I avoid most guest posts for various reasons but I would review what he wanted to submit. I was impressed, not only by his overall writing but also the passion he brought to his subject.

With the broadening of the focus of this blog for 2014, he was writing about a subject that never would have fit previously, but now I felt it did. I don't consider myself a wild-eyed environmentalist, but I do have a concern over what damage we are doing to our planet. I would like to think we will leave this earth in livable condition for my grandkids and their grandkids and their...well, you get the idea.

While this post makes a reference to global warming I ask that you take in the overall message he is trying to make. I'd like to avoid comments or reactions to this post to center on the debate about global warming and man's culpability in that issue. If you'd like, substitute the phrase, climate change. But, that isn't really the point of the article.

I realize what follows isn't what you normally find on these pages, but I believe it is a message all of us must hear. We may come to different conclusions and we may disagree with what he is saying, but considering all sides of an issue before reaching a conclusion is our responsibility.

OK, enough of the disclaimer. The author's name is Zeke Iddon. He is working with a company that is pioneering the technology behind turning plastic waste into readily usable fuel. This guest post is focused on the growing problem of plastic waste, particularly in our oceans and waterways, the misconceptions and realities of the problem.

Great Pacific Garbage Patch: Facts, Misconceptions, and What We Can Do About It

We’re living in a world in which information and ideas are both instantly accessible and travel at lightning speed. The benefits of this have been far-reaching on both a small and large scale; from being able to freely blog and attract an audience around common interests (Satisfying Retirement being a prime example) to the kind of open communication that lead to the rise against various forms of oppression around the world over the past few years.

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In a similar manner, knowledge about the environment (and our place in it) has been greatly enhanced over the last decade or so. We’re becoming increasingly aware of how our lifestyles and resource consumption affects the world around us, but there is a problem here: it’s not always easy to quantify this impact in any tangible way.

The Gulf Stream rising in temperature by a couple of degrees doesn’t mean much to the everyday Joe, and nor do statistics on atmospheric molecular changes. What does speak to us - as humans beings - are emotionally-charged images which drive the point home.

For global warming, examples include pictures of lone polar bears struggling across melting ice floes, or virtually opaque smog choking a large city.

When it comes to the issue of plastic waste, no finer image sums up the scale of the problem than that of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch:

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The photo depicts a single rower fighting through a dense soup of discarded plastic, extending as far as the eye can sea. When the image came to the fore sometime around 2008, it ran wild in the media as the ultimate portrayal of how much plastic we consume and the knock-on affect the resulting waste has on our delicate oceans. Moreover, scientists as far back as the late 80s had held suspicions that the Pacific ‘
gyre’ was out there, but this image was the final confirmation the world needed…

… although there’s a few things we need to clear up here.

That Isn’t The Pacific Ocean

A powerful image it may be, but it’s not a picture of the Pacific Island Garbage Patch. In fact, it’s a harbor in the Philippines and according to biologist Miriam Goldstein (who is actively studying plastic waste in the North Pacific): “
That picture of the guy in the canoe has been following me around my whole career!” She adds, “We’ve never seen anything like that picture. Never seen it personally, and we’ve never seen it on satellite [imagery].”

That doesn’t make the problem any less real, of course, but it does speak of the fact that the public at large isn’t aware of what the North Pacific Gyre actually is.

Plastic is Biodegradable

One of the most common charges against plastic (or, we should specify, the kind of synthetic polymer that is used for shopping bags and packaging) is that it never breaks down when left to the elements. This isn’t strictly true; in fact, the molecular chains of polymers are rather weak, which is why we can only recycle unwanted plastic products a few times before they lose their strength.

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The problem occurs after the product breaks down – via UV rays from the sun in landfills or by tidal and microbial forces in the sea – to microscopic pieces. This is when biodegradation becomes difficult, and it’s the reason why there is not a gigantic mountain of plastic bottles floating around the Pacific.

Sure, it’s less dramatic. But it’s also a more severe problem; plastic bottles are easy to scoop up. A vast soup of barely visible particles, however, is not.

Microplastic Debris Doesn’t Kill Animals

Images of seals and other marine life caught up in plastic waste are distressing and depict a very serious issue regarding marine pollution, but it’s a different issue to the one presented by the North Pacific Gyre.

The aforementioned soup doesn’t directly kill marine life, and much of it actually thrives on the microscopic debris. And herein lies the rub; this throws the ecosystem way out of balance, and we all know how delicate a system it is.

So What Can We Do To Combat This?

Not only is the North Pacific Gyre a big – and growing – problem, but it’s not the only one. There are five major gyres (of which the one in the North Pacific is the biggest), so the pressure is on to come up with a solution.