Warren Miller: Humanity’s great dump in the northern Pacific
Special to the Aspen Times Weekly
Aspen, CO Colorado
In the seventies, for a change of scenery from producing ski movies, I secured the contract to produce a travel film for Micronesia Airlines. My job was to make Micronesia as attractive as Hawaii, but with a lot fewer people.
Two weeks later I sent the camera crew to Micronesia to do the almost impossible. They were to take stunning pictures of beautiful white, sandy beaches. Once the crew arrived and settled in, I received a frantic phone call saying the beaches were unbelievably polluted by all matter of floating debris: life jackets, flip-flops, cigarette lighters, kids’ toys, you name it. The beaches were completely covered with junk. The production manager set out to hire locals to help him clean up the beaches that were going to be filmed. Big holes were dug to bury rusty 50 gallon oil drums left over from World War II. The rest of the crew got busy filming “The Coin of the Realm” on the island of Yap.
Part of our movie assignment was to not film pollution in Micronesia, and that was in 1970.
In 1997, Charles Moore was returning from a race to Hawaii in his homemade catamaran and was taking the great circle route back to the West Coast when he decided to take a shortcut through the perpetual high-pressure area in the northern Pacific where all of the winds eventually end up dying. He was very surprised when he sailed through an area about the size of France, or twice the size of Texas, which was a huge island of plastic garbage, made up of tens of millions of floating water bottles and any other kind of floating debris. Some of it had been dumped off ocean-going vessels, but the primary source of debris was the beaches of Southeast Asia including Japan, plus Alaska, Canada, United States and Mexico, and of course, many cities’ garbage scows dumping in the ocean. From these locations anything that was washed into the ocean would eventually wind up in this, as it is called, gyre. A plastic water bottle, once manufactured, lasts forever because it is not biodegradable and just breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces as the sun hits it.
When Charles Moore returned to California, he organized an expedition to go back and examine this area that is now called the Pacific Garbage Patch. There is no known method of doing anything about this environmental disaster except to stop manufacturing plastic, which is, of course, impossible.
Eventually plastic water bottles will break down until reduced to about 2 cm in diameter and drift around in the ocean, as deep as 300 feet. It is estimated that 60 million tons of plastic are manufactured each year, and plastic particles are found in mussels and barnacles as far away as the English Channel and northern European beaches. The scary thing to me about this whole problem is that every molecule of plastic still exists, including the floating plastic, which looks like food and is taken back to bird’s nests where their new offspring die of starvation, not to mention the countless fish that ingest these pieces.
Recently an albatross was found in the central Pacific, and plastic manufactured in 1940 was discovered in its stomach. Since this floating Pacific Garbage Island is so far from visibility, not very many people are angry enough to pay much attention to it.
Today there are an estimated 46,000 busted pieces of plastic per square mile of ocean worldwide. There is a beach in Hawaii where there are so many pieces of plastic covering the sandy beach that you have to dig down almost two feet to get to clean sand. There are more pieces of plastic on a beach than there are grains of sand on the surface.
Unfortunately, at this point in history no known microbe has morphed into a plastic-eating entity to live off of plastic. And if such a microbe were developed, who knows what that microbe would eventually eat when it ran out of plastic?
How is this going to get cleaned up and who will pay for it? Maybe the United Nations Environment Programme’s $190 million a year budget for cleaning up the world?
The last James Bond movie only cost $205 million … but in this one, Dr. No is winning!
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