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Posted
May 5, 2009

A New Continent of Plastic Trash

The Pacific Ocean now hosts floating debris twice the size of Texas.

It’s official: the plastic trash that our technologically advanced society produces has generated…. a new continent. It’s twice the size of Texas, and it floats in the middle of the north Pacific Ocean. As reported by the London Times, the massive trash dump consists of six million tons of plastic bags, bottles and other synthetic throwaways in various stages of degradation. This is actually only one-third of the estimated 18 million tons of plastic junk floating in the world’s oceans.

When economists primly talk about “market externalities” – well, this is what they mean. Only the economic theorists rarely grapple with the nasty realities of the term. Nor do they generally have anything to propose for “internalizing” with the externalities (i.e., making the companies who produce non-degradable plastic products shoulder the actual costs). The job of restoring the commons (to the extent possible) is left to activists and government agencies, while the companies that externalized their unwanted costs in the first place bitch and moan about anti-business attacks.

Lost or abandoned fishing nets often catch plastic and other debris. Photo by kqedquest, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution, NonCommercial license.

Reporter Frank Pope describes the history of the Plastic Continent this way:

The toxic soup of refuse was discovered in 1997 when Charles Moore, an oceanographer, decided to travel through the centre of the North Pacific gyre (a vortex or circular ocean current). Navigators usually avoid oceanic gyres because persistent high-pressure systems — also known as the doldrums — lack the winds and currents to benefit sailors.

Mr. Moore found bottle caps, plastic bags and polystyrene floating with tiny plastic chips. Worn down by sunlight and waves, discarded plastic disintegrates into smaller pieces. Suspended under the surface, these tiny fragments are invisible to ships and satellites trying to map the plastic continent, but in subsequent trawls Mr Moore discovered that the chips outnumbered plankton by six to one.

The damage caused by these tiny fragments is more insidious than strangulation, entrapment and choking by larger plastic refuse. The fragments act as sponges for heavy metals and pollutants until mistaken for food by small fish. The toxins then become more concentrated as they move up the food chain through larger fish, birds and marine mammals.

While scientists believe that the Plastic Continent cannot be cleaned up, a crew of 30 seaman on the Kaisei, a decommissioned Japanese trawler, want to see what can be done. They will use special nets to try to collect 40 tons of plastic for a trial recycling project while trying to avoid catching much sea life. The ship will also use unmanned aircraft and “robotic surface explorers” to try to map the depth and size of the trash dump.

Shocking as this story is, it is just one of many daily reminders of that the Earth is indeed finite. It also undescores the systemic blindness of our “free market” system to this elemental reality. A commons perspective offers a more realistic orientation to the problem because it dares to be holistic; it does not consider government subsidies (in this case, for oil used in making plastics) or the post-market transaction disposal of a product as “someone else’s” responsibility.

The simple truth is that markets pay little heed to costs that are invisible or that can be easily externalized. And if you don’t believe that, just gaze at the new continent of trash floating in the Pacific.