An Ocean of Plastic

The world’s waste has formed a vast floating garbage dump that’s twice the size of Texas, and it’s working its way up the food chain

– BY |

Welcome to the future, » says Capt. Charles Moore, the commander of a 25-ton research vessel called Alguita. He’s standing in Kewalo Basin Harbor on the south shore of Oahu, holding up a jug filled with murky yellow liquid. Tiny bits of debris swirl in the jug, a cloudy mass of trash. Most of it is plastic.

« This is what our oceans look like now, » Moore continues in a mariner’s drawl. « This sam­ple was taken in the Pacific about 1,000 miles west-southwest of Los Angeles. But I need to emphasize that this is not just one place—this is the whole ocean. » The liquid in the jug resembles a gut­ter puddle in Manhattan more than the placid blue of the Pacific.

It was Moore who, in 1997, made a dis­covery about the ocean that raised alarms around the world. Returning home to California after a sailing race to Hawaii, he plotted a course through the North Pacific Gyre, an area known to sailors as the « doldrums. » Encompassing some 10 million square miles, the gyre is home to trade winds and circular currents that tend to keep whatever mean­ders into it without self-propul­sion for months, years, even dec­ades at a time. There, near the center of the slow, deep, clock­wise currents that form this oce­anic eddy, Moore came across a vast mass of floating debris that has become known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

The first thing you need to know about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is that its name, which conjures up images of an an­imated Charlie Brown special, is disgust­ingly inappropriate. In reality, the « patch » is a swirling vortex of plastic soup, an im­mense, fetid swamp of debris where tiny bits of decaying plastic outweigh surface zooplankton—one of the most prolific and abundant organisms on the planet—by a ratio of six-to-one. Nobotly knows its exact size or if it has any boundaries at all: Its location and shape vary depending on factors such as water temperature, season and major weather events like El Niño. Scientists estimate it is twice the size of Texas—maybe even larger—and contains some 10 million tons of waste.

« At first you see blue water stretching to the horizon, » says Mary Crowley, direc­tor of the Ocean Voyages Institute. « That makes it seem like everything is quite all right. But then, when you really look into the water, you see this never-ending plas- tic confetti. We usually gather individual pieces of plastic at a rate of 200 to 300 every 30 minutes—and that’s just in our im­mediate vicinity. » Since the study started, researchers have not found a single sample in the gyre devoid of plastic.

Because most of the debris consists of « microplastics »—larger chunks of waste that have been re­duced to tiny bits of polymer by the com­bined effect of waves, wind and sun—it poses an especially dire threat to wildlife. Particulated plastic is more likely to be eaten by birds and fish—and can contain concentrations of toxic chemicals, includ­ing DDT and PCBs, as much as a million times greater than the surrounding seawater. On Midway Atoll, albatross chicks are dying from starvation, their bellies full of plastic. Sea turtles mistake buoyant plastic bags for jellyfish, one of their main sources of prey, and choke to death. In a recent sample of 670 myctophids, a major source of food for larger fish, the crew of Alguita found 1,298 pieces of plastic. « It’s becoming the new diet, » says Moore. « We’re putting everything in the ocean on a plastic diet. »

It’s hard to believe plastic has only been around for a century. In 1909, a Belgian-born chemist named Leo Hendrik Baekeland introduced the first completely synthetic plastic, a phenol-formaldehyde compound he called Bakelite, to the world at a conference of chemists in New York. Bakelite, first synthesized in Baekeland’s barn in Yonkers, New York, was made by mixing carbolic acid and formaldehyde. It had the near-mystical property of being malleable when heated under pressure, while becoming rigid and insoluble when cooled. Highly moldable, more durable than ceramics, lighter than metal and made entirely in the lab, the new compos­ite was also electrically nonconductive and heat-resistant, quickly earning it the title « material of a thousand uses. »

First it was nylon, which hit the market in 1940, later causing riots at department stores as women stampeded over one an­other for a pair of stockings. Mass production of other plastics came after World War II with the advent of polyethylene, polypropylene and polystyrene, which serve as key ingredients in products like Saran Wrap, disposable milk jugs, Hula-Hoops and Styrofoam. By the 1960s, plas­tics were a ubiquitous part of American life and the very picture of modernity. By 1979, the annual volume of plastic pro­duced in the U.S. overtook that of steel.

Lauded as the « miracle » behind modern life, today plastic is everywhere. It’s in our clothes, computers, cellphones, cars, fur­niture and refrigerators. Airplanes, hos­pitals and laboratories depend upon it, but mostly, it ends up in our trash cans. Next year, the world will pump out close to 300 million tons of plastic, well more than a third of it falling into the catego­ry of « minimal use, » meaning it will be discarded anytime within a few seconds to one year. In the United States, 25 bil­lion pounds of plastic go unaccounted for each year. Where does it go? Where does a relatively indestructible material go in a finite world? « Except for a small amount that’s been incinerated, every bit of plastic we’ve put in the oceans still remains, » says Anthony Andrady, a lead­ing research scientist who specializes in plastics. « It’s still somewhere in the ma­rine environment. »

When was the last time you spent an entire day without using a piece of dis­posable plastic? It surrounds us, inun­dates us. It gathers in the gutters of cities, washes up on every coastline in the world and floats in the oceans themselves. The United Nations Environment Program es­timates that plastic debris kills more than 100,000 marine mammals and 1 million seabirds every year. Even small organisms like jellyfish, lanternfish and zooplankton have started to ingest tiny bits of plastic. These species, the very foundation of the oceanic food web, are becoming saturated with plastic, which may be passed farther up the food chain. « The concern is what the plastic is carrying and releasing into organisms that ingest it, » says Holly Bamford, who is launching a study of marine debris for the National Oceanic and At­mospheric Administration. The bottom line is: It’s all our own shit, and we’re quite literally starting to eat it.

Even though plastic disintegrates over time, leaching chemicals like bisphenol-A and phthalates into the environment, most of it never disappears; the synthetic polymers that form its building blocks remain intact. In its tiniest, most par-ticulated state, Andrady explains, « plas­tic is still plastic. The material still re­mains a polymer. Polyethylene—the most pervasive type of disposable plastic—is not biodegraded in any practical time scale. There is no mechanism in the ma­rine environment to biodegrade that long a molecule. »

When fish and mammals ingest microplastics from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the chemical toxins concentrated in the waste lodge themselves in the animals’ fatty tissues, accumulating at ever-increasing levels the higher you go up the food chain. It isn’t clear yet if these chem­icals are reaching humans, but PCBs and DDT are known to disrupt reproduction in marine mammals. In humans they have been linked to liver damage, skin lesions and cancer. « The possibility of more and more creatures ingesting plas­tics that contain concentrated pollutants is real and quite disturbing, » says Richard Thompson, a British marine biolo­gist who has been studying microplastics for 20 years.

Wayne Sentman, a field biologist with the San Francisco-based Oceanic Soci­ety, has spent three years on Midway Atoll conducting field research on dead albatrosses. During that time, he has found a wide array of marine debris inside the bel­lies of dead birds, including « six lighters in one chick, a complete syringe with the needle, a small flashlight, various small light bulbs, combs, toothbrushes, parts of flip-flops and fishing tackle. » On British coastlines in the North Sea, a study of ful­mars found that 95 percent of the seabirds had plastic in their stomachs, with an av­erage of 44 pieces per bird. A proportion­al amount in a human being would weigh nearly five pounds.

The data about plastic debris in the oceans is still in its nascent stages, and scien­tists with the National Oce­anic and Atmospheric Ad­ministration stress that more research is needed to determine whether plastic has become a toxin in the food chain. But the evidence is mounting, and the amount of debris continues to double each decade. The threat extends well beyond the Great Pacific Garbage Patch: As Capt. Moore is quick to point out, the North Pacific Gyre is only one of five major gyres in the world’s oceans. « Half of the world’s oceans are accumulators—these high-pressure gyres that bring stuff into themselves, » he says. « And every single one of them is full of plastic. »

The question now is what, if anything, can we do about it? Some researchers are exploring ways to clean up the plastic by using an emerging technology to con­vert the oceans of plastic waste into fuel. One of the principal ingredients of plastic, after all, is crude oil—four percent of the world’s entire supply, to be exact, or about 3.4 million barrels of oil a day at our cur­rent levels of consumption. If the energy in plastic could somehow be released, the thinking goes, it could simultaneously solve the waste problem while easing en­ergy demand.

« Plastic is made from crude, » says Alka Zadgaonkar, head of the department of applied chemistry at the G.H. Raisoni College of Engineering in Nagpur, India. « If you break it down, what you get is liq­uid hydrocarbon. » With a loan from the State Bank of India, Zadgaonkar says she has developed a system that, with the aid of a secret catalyst, can turn « one kilo­gram of waste plastic into one liter of hydrocarbon. » The hydrocarbons can then be distilled into a rough gasoline suitable for powering machinery, motorcycles and heating systems.

The problem is that extracting a single liter of fuel takes one kilogram of plas­tic and 100 grams of coal, which doesn’t exactly make the process ecofriendly. What’s more, there is currently no prac­tical method to capture the liquid grave­yard of waste floating in the Pacific. « The biggest task we now face is how to catch it, » says Doug Woodring, the co-founder of a study of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch called Project Kaisei. « That is where the technology is uncertain. »

The only viable way to stop the spread of plastic into the world’s food chain, say those studying the danger, is to reduce the amount of plastic we use. « There’s no way you can clean all this shit up—it’s impos­sible, » says Capt. Moore. « Right now we’re catching all this stuff with a small net. What are you going to do—drag these nets through the entire ocean? »

Moore, who stumbled across the Great Pacific Garbage Patch by accident, looks more like a sailor than a scientist, and his language is as salty as his thick head of curly hair. Unlike other researchers, used to the measured talk of scientific conferences, Moore cuts to the heart of the matter. « All this bullshit about going out there and scooping this stuff up—you can’t scoop this stuff up! » he says. « No way in hell you’re going to get that out of there—it’s just not feasible! The idea that there’s this ‘convergence zone’ in the gyre, and the plastic waste all goes there—well, if it’s all going there, it’s coming from other places and screwing up those parts of the ocean too. If the input is constant, then that just makes the whole ocean fucked up. »

Moore pauses, looking out over the Pa­cific. « No matter where you are, there’s no getting over it, no getting away from it, » he says. « It’s a plastic ocean now. »

Source : RollingStone

Green Concrete using Plastic Waste

International Journal of Engineering Trends and Technology (IJETT) – Volume 19 Number 4 – Jan 2015


Based on the results of the experimental investigation, following conclusions could be drawn as follows: In Concrete, Natural sand can be replaced with plastic waste by 10 to 20% to achieve green concrete. Sand can also be replaced up to 30% in the members of building which do not carry high load. Using plastic waste such as polyvinyl chloride (PVC), Polypropylene (PP), Polyethylene in concrete reduces the environmental issues and minimizes the difficulties of dumping the major plastic waste. This will help to tackle the increasing pollution all over the world, especially in countries that face the complications regarding waste. In addition to the environmental benefits, it was noted that using plastic scrap can be used to fight against the obstacle of scarcity of natural sand in India. Also it was perceived that using aluminum powder in concrete containing plastic waste will minimize the dead load of concrete which is of crucial importance. Ultimately the use of such plastic waste material cuts down the cost of construction and also the aftermath of using plastic scrap in concrete will be magnificent.

Source : International Journal of Engineering Trends and Technology (IJETT) – Volume 19 Number 4 – Jan 2015

Why Sand Is Disappearing ?

BERKELEY, Calif. — TO those of us who visit beaches only in summer, they seem as permanent a part of our natural heritage as the Rocky Mountains and the Great Lakes. But shore dwellers know differently. Beaches are the most transitory of landscapes, and sand beaches the most vulnerable of all. During big storms, especially in winter, they can simply vanish, only to magically reappear in time for the summer season.

It could once be said that “a beach is a place where sand stops to rest for a moment before resuming its journey to somewhere else,” as the naturalist D. W. Bennett wrote in the book “Living With the New Jersey Shore.” Sand moved along the shore and from beach to sea bottom and back again, forming shorelines and barrier islands that until recently were able to repair themselves on a regular basis, producing the illusion of permanence.

Today, however, 75 to 90 percent of the world’s natural sand beaches are disappearing, due partly to rising sea levels and increased storm action, but also to massive erosion caused by the human development of shores. Many low-lying barrier islands are already submerged.

Yet the extent of this global crisis is obscured because so-called beach nourishment projects attempt to hold sand in place and repair the damage by the time summer people return, creating the illusion of an eternal shore.

Before next summer, endless lines of dump trucks will have filled in bare spots and restored dunes. Virginia Beach alone has been restored more than 50 times. In recent decades, East Coast barrier islands have used 23 million loads of sand, much of it mined inland and the rest dredged from coastal waters — a practice that disturbs the sea bottom, creating turbidity that kills coral beds and damages spawning grounds, which hurts inshore fisheries.

The sand and gravel business is now growing faster than the economy as a whole. In the United States, the market for mined sand has become a billion-dollar annual business, growing at 10 percent a year since 2008. Interior mining operations use huge machines working in open pits to dig down under the earth’s surface to get sand left behind by ancient glaciers. But as demand has risen — and the damming of rivers has held back the flow of sand from mountainous interiors — natural sources of sand have been shrinking.

One might think that desert sand would be a ready substitute, but its grains are finer and smoother; they don’t adhere to rougher sand grains, and tend to blow away. As a result, the desert state of Dubai brings sand for its beaches all the way from Australia.

And now there is a global beach-quality sand shortage, caused by the industries that have come to rely on it. Sand is vital to the manufacturing of abrasives, glass, plastics, microchips and even toothpaste, and, most recently, to the process of hydraulic fracturing. The quality of silicate sand found in the northern Midwest has produced what is being called a “sand rush” there, more than doubling regional sand pit mining since 2009.

But the greatest industrial consumer of all is the concrete industry. Sand from Port Washington on Long Island — 140 million cubic yards of it — built the tunnels and sidewalks of Manhattan from the 1880s onward. Concrete still takes 80 percent of all that mining can deliver. Apart from water and air, sand is the natural element most in demand around the world, a situation that puts the preservation of beaches and their flora and fauna in great danger. Today, a branch of Cemex, one of the world’s largest cement suppliers, is still busy on the shores of Monterey Bay in California, where its operations endanger several protected species.

The huge sand mining operations emerging worldwide, many of them illegal, are happening out of sight and out of mind, as far as the developed world is concerned. But in India, where the government has stepped in to limit sand mining along its shores, illegal mining operations by what is now referred to as the “sand mafia” defy these regulations. In Sierra Leone, poor villagers are encouraged to sell off their sand to illegal operations, ruining their own shores for fishing. Some Indonesian sand islands have been devastated by sand mining.

It is time for us to understand where sand comes from and where it is going. Sand was once locked up in mountains and it took eons of erosion before it was released into rivers and made its way to the sea. As Rachel Carson wrote in 1958, “in every curving beach, in every grain of sand, there is a story of the earth.” Now those grains are sequestered yet again — often in the very concrete sea walls that contribute to beach erosion.

We need to stop taking sand for granted and think of it as an endangered natural resource. Glass and concrete can be recycled back into sand, but there will never be enough to meet the demand of every resort. So we need better conservation plans for shore and coastal areas. Beach replenishment — the mining and trucking and dredging of sand to meet tourist expectations — must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, with environmental considerations taking top priority. Only this will ensure that the story of the earth will still have subsequent chapters told in grains of sand.

NOV. 4, 2014

Sargassum on Trinidad & Tobago’s Coastlines

[:en]Mounds of sargassum seaweed have carpeted the shoreline for miles. Fishermen continue to battle with the seaweed just to make an honest living, and it doesn’t seem to be getting any better.
[:fr]Mounds of sargassum seaweed have carpeted the shoreline for miles. Fishermen continue to battle with the seaweed just to make an honest living, and it doesn’t seem to be getting any better.

Seaweed invades the Virgin Islands

ROAD TOWN, Tortola, VI – The Virgin Islands, like many other islands in the Caribbean, is being visited by a not so welcomed guest. Depending on where you are, you’re more likely to smell it before setting eyes on it.


It is the dreaded sargassum seaweed and it is certainly coming to a beach near you if it has not already reached there.

This news site yesterday September 28, 2015 visited a number of locations along the coast to get a first-hand look at the extent of the sargassum invasion and one could only marvel at the volume of the vegetation which has washed ashore from Pockwood Pond to Brandywine Bay.

Clean up at Dolphin Discovery

As this news site made its way to Road Town we saw a massive clean-up activity underway at Dolphin Discovery and the surrounding environs of Prospect Reef.

350x_2_20150928_120358_resizedGeneral Manager of Swim with the Dolphins Emmanuel Gilbert explained that they shut down the operations for two days to allow for the clean-up exercise and that the facility will be open again on Wednesday September 30, 2015.

He said, « As you can see we have some sargassum inside and we are already cleaning it. We have some pumps pushing the water to the other side. We don’t have business today neither tomorrow…until Wednesday. »

Mr Gilbert noted that this is the first time he has seen this amount of sargassum. « We hired some machines to take the sargassum out, » he said.

Matter engaging Government’s attention

350x_2_20150928_122912_resizedWhen we made contact with the acting Chief Conservation and Fisheries Officer of the Conservation and Fisheries Department, Kelvin Penn, he advised that we get in contact with the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Natural Resources Mr Ronald F. Smith-Berkeley.

Efforts to reach Smith-Berkeley were futile yesterday.

Acknowledging the extent of the problem, the Ministry of Natural Resources had issued a press statement back in July 2015 saying that there were plans to purchase specialised equipment to get the sargassum out of the water.

“The Ministry of Natural Resources and Labour is confirming that the Sargassum Seaweed that has washed along the Territory’s beaches and shorelines has many benefits and advantages to fisheries in the Virgin Islands,” it said.

350x_b_brandywine_bay_2“Permanent Secretary within the Ministry of Natural Resources and Labour, Mr. Ronald Smith-Berkeley said that the Ministry is currently making efforts towards purchasing a special machine that can remove the seaweed from the ocean and another from the shoreline.

Mr. Smith-Berkeley added, “Along with these efforts, we are also now, in discussions with our colleagues in the region facing similar issues, as we look for solutions and share best management practices when it comes to the seaweed.”

Worst year ever

350x_b_behind_mulligans_2According to an article on, this summer’s invasion of sargassum, stretches from the beaches of Palm Beach County and Key West in Florida as far south as Tulum on Mexico’s Riviera Maya.

“The east and south coasts of Barbados, the Dominican Republic, Tobago and Cancun have been particularly hard hit, but other islands, too, have battled the invasion. Sargassum also is a problem along sections of the Texas Gulf coast, especially Galveston, although a slight shift in ocean currents has spared the region from the seaweed onslaught of last summer,” said the online publication.

“This is the worst year ever,” the article quotes Brian Lapointe, a professor and oceanographer with Florida Atlantic University’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute, as saying. “I’d say we have hit a crisis level. There’s been an increase in the frequency and the extent of sargassum coming ashore, choking scenic coves and piling as high as 10 feet on some beaches.”

A scientific perspective from Dr Cassandra Titley O’Neal

When we reached out to local environmentalist Dr Cassandra Titley O’Neal, she gave a scientific perspective on the issue. “The blooms that we are experiencing are good and bad,” she said.

“The good points are that it (1) plays a role in beach nourishment for plants that grow in the dunes as well as birds; and (2) shoreline stability; however, not in as large a quantity that we are experiencing now,” she said.

Dr Titley O’Neal explained that the pungent smell is from the natural decomposition where hydrogen sulphide is given off.

“In cases of severe decomposition where the smell can reach roughly 3 to 5 parts per million, prolonged exposure can lead to nausea, headaches, tearing of eyes, and loss of sleep.”

350x_p_pockwood_pond_2She said for persons suffering from asthma they may experience airway problems. “Other health issues related to hydrogen sulphide exposure may include fatigue, loss of appetite, dizziness, and irritability,” she said.

“If the seaweed is not cleaned up and the concentration of hydrogen sulphide exceeds 100 parts per million the effects increase, including include eye irritation, olfactory fatigue, and drowsiness,” she pointed out.

Dr Titley O’Neal explained that the vegetation is good for ecological reasons, ensuring shoreline stability. “The plants get the nutrients they need to grow and as they grow their roots expand and this helps hold the sand in place.”

“Sargassum is a ‘floating hotel’ with shrimp, worms and many other small organisms which provide a source of food for many shore birds, ensuing ecological balance,” explained the Virgin Islands environmentalist.

She further explained that the build-up of the vegetation cannot be controlled. “It originates from the Sargasso Sea where nutrient input is high and water temperature is warm; a perfect recipe for it to grow and when it gets too large it breaks off and drifts here with the currents,” she explained.

Dr Titley O’Neal said removal of sargassum from the different beaches depends on the method to be used “as you don’t want to damage the dunes and plants that grow there.”

Source : Virgin Islands News Online 6


Al Jazeera America

Me & Jonathan Betz for Al Jazeera America. Talking about sargassum invasion in Mexico, and about my concept!

Jonathan Betz - Al Jazeera America studio
Jonathan Betz – Al Jazeera America
Jonathan BETZ for Al Jazeera America News & Denis JIMENEZ in Puerto Morelos, Mexico
Jonathan BETZ for Al Jazeera America News & Denis JIMENEZ in Puerto Morelos, Mexico


Al Jazeera America interview about sargassum
Al Jazeera America interview about sargassum