The “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” is an accumulation of debris, mostly plastic, that rotates slowly in the Pacific Ocean north of the equator. But it’s not the only one in the world. There’s a similar concentration of waste in the Atlantic, on our side of the continent.
If you hear somebody say “we flew over the area, and we saw nothing,” they may be trying to mislead you. Although there are some floating mounds of junk in the water, the greatest concern is with thousands of square miles where large concentrations of tiny plastic pieces are swirling “like pepper flakes in soup.”
Less than a quarter-inch in diameter, those little flakes form when sunlight makes plastic objects, such as soda bottles and drink cups, decay and break apart. They get trapped by the rotating currents in the world’s oceans, and keep traveling in a circle covering thousands of miles.
The high concentrations of plastic in the water are dangerous to animals who ingest them. No clean-up method is known at present. The only remedy is to use less plastic to find its way to the sea.
Putting it into landfills isn’t a sustainable solution, either. The Hall County landfill, according to its website, receives 170 tons of solid trash per day.
We can reduce the amount of non-biodegradable plastic by making some simple changes. For example, there are those towers of Styrofoam or plastic cups in many offices next to the coffee maker. In the kitchenette of our office building, we replaced the plastic stuff with sturdy, washable mugs. They were acquired at low cost from nearby Potter’s House thrift store, and students are often amused by the funny phrases printed on them.
Plastic cutlery was replaced with stainless steel knives, forks and spoons from the same source. Each piece is different, making for an inexpensive unique collection. Students are encouraged to use metal bottles for drinking water and refill them from the tap instead of purchasing the little plastic ones.
Across the nation, some fast-food retailers, like New York’s Brooklyn Roasting Co., have started selling coffee in reusable cups. Customers return them after use for a discount on the next drink. In the 1970s, we were all used to returning glass Coke bottles for a deposit refund. Those old methods, which limited the amounts of landfill trash, can still work today.