The Herald Bulletin

Evening Update

Editorials

August 9, 2013

Editorial: Aquatic plastic garbage patches not such a distant problem after all

Plastics are a wonderful human development that have been used in thousands of ways to improve quality of life. But plastics are also stubborn against forces of nature and the attempts of man to control them.

In the oceans of the world, large masses of degraded plastics — small, small pieces — form massive “garbage patches” that can disrupt the food chain and change the ecosystem. Micro-organisms can feed on vegetation that forms on the patches, thereby taking in dangerous toxins. When fish and other species eat the micro-organisms, the toxins are passed up the food chain until they ultimately reach humans.

The oceanic garbage patches are formed by various types of plastics — particles from lawn chairs and plastic bottles and skin-care products, to name a few — that are washed into waterways that spill out into the oceans. Winds and currents of the sea them whip them together into fields of massive proportion. In some regions of the oceans, plastic matter outweighs biomass.

These garbage patches were first confirmed about two decades ago, but many in the general public are unaware of them. It’s frightening to know that the patches, even if there were no additional plastics added to the oceans, would continue to hang around for a thousand years.

Here in the Midwest, we don’t see much of the ocean, and the problem may seem very distant, almost hypothetical.

But now comes news that strikes home: Scientists are studying plastic particles in the Great Lakes and finding the particles in distressing concentrations. Huge cities border the lakes, with humans who use all sorts of plastics that can end up in the water. The plastics, presumably, could have the same sorts of dangerous impact on the ecosystems of the lakes.

The study is ongoing, and it is not yet clear the depth of the problem in the Great Lakes. It is clear that garbage patches in any body of water are not desirable, but are a sinister product of humanity’s reliance on plastics. Is there a solution to the problem? A possible answer is the development of plastics that biodegrade more readily.

Closer to home, you can play a role in helping limit environmental plagues by recycling. The next time you go to throw a plastic bottle into the waste basket, think where it might end up. Then dedicate yourself to recycling all the plastic products you use.

In summary Scientists are studying plastic particles in the Great Lakes and finding the particles in distressing concentrations.

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