de Vos: Goo Gyre gets ginormous
April 5, 2012
The other day I was in Whole Foods Market, mildly gape-jawed at the organicky feel of the place. Things were so post-gluten, pro-soy and anti-irradiated that I started to get the creepy feeling that I needed to get further away from people. You know, like back to Grand County. So I packed up the few items I had and headed for check-out. Where the problem occurred.
There, at the check-out counter, the real bumpkin exposed himself by opening his mouth and uttering the ‘p’ word. Yes, I did. I asked, “Could I have plastic, please?” I’m from a small town. There’s plastic available where I live, OK?
Was I aware there’s a nationwide frown on single-use plastic bags? Hmm, I musta’ read sumpin’ ’bout it, somewheres, but, excuse me, I do have a secondary use for plastic grocery bags. Because we have a Basset Hound with the agility of a break-dancer, we’re forced to keep our kitchen trash on top of the fridge. It’s inconvenient, granted, but you don’t live with this dog, so keep quiet. Grocery-store bags work great as temporary holding stations awaiting the armored-car pickup.
I said, “Plastic, please,” and it was like I tore up a picture of Steve Jobs. Heads swiveled; the store light above my head doubled in intensity. People glared. “Um,” I said, looking around, “so there’s no plastic available, I take it?”
The clerk looked at me, wide-eyed in alarm, gave a tiny shake of her head and said, “Where are your re-useable bags?” in the same astonished tone as she would have said, “Where are your pants?”
“I, uh, was joking of course, what I meant to say was, ‘No plastic for me!’ Here I’ll just stuff this angel food cake in my pocket and head west, thanks.”
Today’s plastic bags are direct descendants of the search for a better billiard ball. Back in the 1860s it was becoming deucedly hard to run out and bag an elephant every time one of your relatives stole an ivory pool ball out of the Billiard Room. What else would make that satisfying ‘click’?
The answer was provided in 1868 when John Hyatt added camphor to cellulose, creating celluloid, an organic, malleable goo when heated that retains its shape as it cools. Celluloid became the foundation of the plastic industry, which itself became the foundation for the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
The GPGP is a swirling gyre of discarded garbage in the middle of the north Pacific. It’s in the center of a slow-moving vortex caused by clockwise rotation of currents as they meet continental shores. It’s composed largely of plastic by-products, from the near indestructible plastics used to encapsulate everything, to packing peanuts and grocery bags. There are actually several smaller garbage gyres in the oceans around the world but the GPGP is far and away the largest.
It’s mostly plastic but there are other sources. If you’ve ever been to the midnight buffet on a Carnival Fun Cruise you’ll quickly nod in agreement that each of these 3,000-passenger behemoths produce eight tons of solid waste per week, most of which gets flushed into the water. There are thousands of cruise ships around the world’s seas and oceans.
Despite its name, the Garbage Patch is deceptive to view because most of the contaminants are pulverized down to the microscopic level where it is consumed by fish allowing sizable amounts of PCB’s and other plastic-related chemicals into the food chain. At the center of the GBGB, the plastic debris outweighs the plankton by a ratio of 6 to 1.
The size of the GPGP depends upon the levels of contaminants where you start, but all the studies put it in that broad range between the size of Australia to twice the size of the United States.
Now, where did I put those reusable bags?
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