Plastic island, a monument to our collective ingenuity and folly

Giant floating plastic patch spans Pacific from Japan to Hawaii

We lamented the massive plastic “island” in the Pacific at a recent conference in Surrey on faith and the environment.

A few days later the city of Toronto banned plastic bags. And yet a prominent Torontonian (the mayor himself) called the decision “the dumbest thing” his government has ever done.

One could also say that the floating plastic patch spanning much of the Pacific from Japan to Hawaii is a monument to human stupidity.

To trace its origins perhaps we should go back to the 1862 when Alexander Parkes first showed off his new invention (“parkenstine”) at the great international exhibition in London.

Of course, we would not call Parkes’ intelligence into question, nor any of the innovative people who have molded plastic into exceedingly useful items for modern society. Yet there is clearly a problem here.

The stock material for plastic in general is oil. Ironically, an heir to a family fortune based on oil, Charles Moore, stumbled on the plastic island in 1997 and became one of the most outspoken critics of plastic pollution.

Moore came across the island when taking a short cut in his yacht across the “North Pacific Gyre” which sailors usually avoid because of the current. Day after day Moore was confronted with a soup of floating plastic gradually accumulated since the invention of plastic in the 1800s.

Moore sold the family business and became an environmental activist.

Working with oceanographers to investigate the problem, Moore estimates that the area contains 100 million tons of assorted flotsam, from plastic toys to plastic bags.

Beyond the aesthetics of the ocean as a repository for our throwaway plastic bits, the garbage patch causes serious damage to ocean ecosystems.

Albatrosses mistake bottle caps and other colorful plastic items for food and feed it to their chicks.

Their chicks often die with their stomachs filled with indigestible plastic.

There are many other issues, but perhaps the biggest issue of all is that the patch (actually two main patches) is still growing.

Plastic lasts for a long, long time. Yet as we heard at the Eco Thee meeting in Surrey, on average only one per cent of what we buy is still in working order six months later.

Where does the other 99 per cent go?

One small action to reduce the amount of plastic I use as an individual seems so small against the backdrop of 100 million tons of floating plastic. But there are billions of us on the planet who can each work to turn the boat around.

David Clements is a professor of biology and environmental studies at Trinity Western University.