I watched “Toxic Garbage Island” which is about a floating mass of waste floating out in what is called the “North Pacific Gyre” which is the largest ecosystem on earth. The gyre is essentially a giant, counterclockwise whirlpool formed by the current of four converging oceans. Some journals claim that this marine dump is roughly the size of Texas. Although this documentary was filmed in 2007 and released the following year, I’m surprised I haven’t heard of this environmental issue until recently.
Most dialogue worth paying attention to comes from the ship’s captain who first spotted the “eastern garbage patch” during an unrelated detour while at sea. In the first part of the documentary, Captain Charles Moore speculates that there are 100 million tons of plastic-based pollutants currently in the ocean. This staggering figure will continue to grow given the amount of time it takes for plastic to break down. It’s estimated that America alone produces 7 billion pounds of non-recyclable waste a year, which includes 100 billion discarded plastic bags. The ship’s chemist, Lorena, raises an interesting point concerning “Subway” sandwich bags in particular; she says that every time a sub is made it’s wrapped in a bag that likely only lasts 60 seconds before the consumer sits down to eat and that same bag might spend 20 years in the sea. What’s worse than the previous ratio used to exemplify the disparity between the amount of time a plastic product is used versus its life as a pollutant, are the millions of tiny micro pellets of plastic compounds that haven’t even entered a end-product manufacturing facility.
Even though the film crew manages to find partially decomposed plastic floating around the gyre, this sign of breakdown still isn’t hopeful in terms of ridding the ocean of garbage. Plastics never truly disappear even if the physical evidence of their existence does. They just degrade into “microplastic” polymers that replace the nutrient-rich organic debris that naturally collect in whirlpools and are even more easily digested by animals in the ecosystem. Interestingly, few little red and orange plastic was caught on film because marine life quickly consumes these particles because they resemble shrimps that form a low level of the food chain. Because diminutive bits of plastic are more likely to be indiscriminately consumed instead of the small marine life that is so vital, either directly or indirectly, to the subsistence of the rest of the ecosystem, there is increasing “bioaccumulation” or “biomagnification” of toxins the larger animals. The chemical structure of plastic polymers closely mimics female hormones causing a host of reproductive issues in large animals, including humans.
Some studies suggest that, as of 2007, one fourth of male swordfish were producing female hormones. The lipophilic plastic pollutants in the swordfish population continue to move up the food chain until they inevitably reach humans, especially those whose diet greatly consists of marine life. The problem is so serious that native Alaskan, Inuit women have been advised to feed their babies formula rather than breast milk as there is a trend of fewer males being born and at lower birth-weights than ever before. Some research from Japan has indicated that every inhabitant of the island nation has varying traces of the polymer bisphenol-A in their system likely contributing to rising recorded incidents of miscarriage. In addition to the gender gap that plastics may create because of their chemical structure, synthetic materials also form a “sponge” for other toxic, man-made compounds such as pesticides. Not only are the animals eating plastic instead of food, but DDT-laced plastic.
Although the crew of “Toxic Garbage Island” did not locate “the money shot” of a solid mass of trash in the middle of the ocean, they arguably found worse; a more visually innocuous issue of tiny plastic particles that outnumber plankton 60:1 that are impossible to simply pull out of the water. The documentary concludes with the crew reaching a trash-filled beach in Hawaii reflecting on the sentiment that “we’re all [screwed]”, to put it in the filmmaker’s words. I found some aspects of the hour long piece more educational than others, and I was sometimes disappointed by the amount of focus placed on the film crew and their experience as novice sailors. As a viewer, if you’re able look past the irony of spotting an anchor tattoo on the arm of one of the inexperienced cameramen, the discussion of lack of physical intimacy on a small boat for three weeks causing the formation of “dicks in the clouds”, and the implied budding romance between two crew members, you may actually learn something.