The Mess That is the Pacific Gyre

Dead albatross on Midway Island

Photo by Chris Jordan, Midway Island

A couple of years back, I ditched the kids (read: left them with Dave) to walk up and down the thousand staircases built into the hilly neighborhoods of Seattle to convince my fellow Seattleites to support the proposed plastic bag ban. At this time I still had a nursing baby and I was barely sleeping 4 hours straight, but I knew that I would sleep even worse if the bag ban didn’t pass and I hadn’t tried my hardest.

It didn’t pass.

The chemical industry flooded our city with money made through the sale of plastic and so bought the election result they wanted. And we still have bags.

This year, our City Council stepped up to the plate once more and banned those bags. The ban goes into effect July 1st. And the chemical industry decided not to challenge it this year, in part because other cities in Washington have already enacted bans and in part because they are expecting a ban to be proposed at the state level, so they are saving up their cash for that fight.

I am thrilled and have been talking with everyone that will listen about this ban and why it’s a good thing. Lots of people, even some of my eco-minded friends, are confused by my enthusiasm and wonder why I think this is so important. So here are a few of the highlights:

  1. As a coastal city, Seattle has a particular responsibility for thinking about and protecting the ocean. Our trash ends up there easily. And when you think about how quickly a plastic bag can get swept up in the wind (watch this little parody to witness it for yourself), it’s easy to imagine that bag ending up in our waterways.
  2. Plastic that enters our water usually ends up in the Pacific Ocean, where currents carry it to the Pacific Gyre, which is also known as the Pacific Garbage Patch. This is where the convergence of ocean currents from all over the Pacific occurs, creating a spiraling vortex of trash. It’s near the Midway Islands, not too far from Hawaii.
  3. If the thought of a spiraling vortex of human generated trash doesn’t freak you out, you should spend a little more time thinking about that.
  4. Then, look at these amazing and shocking pictures taken by local artist Chris Jordan.
  5. Our plastic garbage enters the ocean ecosystem where it is mistaken by sealife for food. A floating plastic bag in the ocean looks a lot like a jellyfish. The myriad other plastic oddities that end up in the Pacific Gyre are equally mistaken for shrimp, fish, seaweed and sustenance by every level of eater in the ocean food chain. Even the zooplankton, who fill their little bellies with microscopic plastic particles from broken down plastic bags. If your belly is full, you stop eating. But if you aren’t getting any nutrients from your food you will starve to death.
  6. If you can’t bring yourself to care about the zooplankton, think about who eats those little buggers. Like baleen whales. This guy washed up in Seattle a couple years back. His belly was full of all manner of human garbage, inlcuding more than 20 plastic bags.
  7. Plastic doesn’t biodegrade for thousands of years. It will break down into smaller and smaller parts, until you get milky looking water. Yum, plastic milk water. Surf’s up!

Learning about this oceanic devastation was like a gut punch for me, but it also spurred me to action. I realize that most of you won’t be motivated to take your case to the streets (but hey, if you are, please do!) However, there are some pretty simple things that you can do to help.

  1. Stop using disposable bags. There are so many options out there, from trendy and colorful shopping bags, to waxed paper or even washable sandwich bags, to good old pyrex (yep, you’ve got to cut the Tupperware habit too!). Have a look around, get creative and stop using those jellyfish impersonators!
  2. Cut down on plastic wherever you can. If you have the choice to buy something in metal, wood or glass instead of plastic, buy it! Let’s create less of a demand for plastic, especially in our homes. Plastic has its uses….say I.V. tubing! It doesn’t need to be touching food. Or flying out of the back of the recycling truck. And you know that happens.
  3. We’ve gone crazy and tried some cool new products, like bamboo utensils that you can use for takeout (and they clear TSA just fine for travel purposes). Instead of buying our coffee beans in bags, we bring mason jars now. We use stick margarine instead of margarine in a tub. It all adds up.
  4. If it comes up in your city, vote to support a plastic bag ban. It’s just not that hard to learn to bring tote bags to the store.
  5. Talk to your friends! Seriously, no one wants their favorite beach in Hawaii cluttered with plastic debris. No one likes emaciated gray whales. But most people just aren’t thinking about it. And as we all know, a little thinking can go a long way.

One thought on “The Mess That is the Pacific Gyre

  1. Nice post Kimberly. The ban in San Jose, CA (pop 1mm) went into effect Jan 1st. Palo Alto has had it for over a year and we can curbside recycle plastic (like bread, bagel and cereal box liner bags)…..although not sure where that goes. Go Seattle! You are a leader in most things environmental!

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