Our oceans are full of plastic. That’s the shocking truth revealed by the Algalita Foundation, which is trying to educate the public about the harm caused by our throwaway culture’s accumulation of plastic debris.At a recent SMC Global Connections presentation, Algalita’s Dr. Marcus Eriksen and Anna Cummins spoke about the problem and showed pictures on PowerPoint that brought home the message with a punch.“Mae West” is a sea turtle who, when she was very small, got a plastic milk jug ring caught around her middle. As she grew, the ring cinched her middle in like a corset and inhibited her natural growth. While scientists eventually removed the ring, her body is deformed due to the ring. Why did “Mae West” encounter this plastic ring? It was floating around in the North Pacific Ocean, along with bottles, bottle caps, flip-flops, suitcases, and plastic bags.Eriksen, a Santa Monica resident who is Director of Education and Research for Algalita (“Little Kelp”), and Cummins, who is Algalita’s Education Adviser, embarked last summer on the first phase of a project to inform people about the huge amount of plastic debris in the North Pacific Gyre, a vast area of swirling water where garbage lingers but never disappears. “It’s like a giant toilet bowl that never flushes,” says Eriksen. Eriksen traveled to Hawaii on a raft built from recycled plastic bottles and aircraft parts. This “Junkraft to Hawaii” gathered debris in collecting trawls. Cummins was the land support liaison. Cummins held up a jar containing some of the material the trawl caught. It was a mixture of plankton and bits of plastic-black, gray, white, and blue fragments of what had been plastic everyday objects, things that people use once and throw “away.” Where is “away”? Cut to a PowerPoint photo of a beach in Hawaii-covered with garbage, and a photo of our own Ballona Creek, also with accumulated trash.Unfortunately, fish mistake some of this plastic debris for the plankton that they live on. The sharp shards often stay in their stomachs, allowing the toxins in the plastic to enter their bodies. Some of these fish are later eaten by humans – who are absorbing the same toxins.“We estimate 3.5 million tons of plastic waste in the ocean,” says Eriksen. There’s too much to simply “scoop it up,” but at least, continues Eriksen, “we can do no more harm.”He and Cummins outlined some of the things people can do to reduce the amount of wasteful plastic, such as using stainless steel water bottles and reusable bags, not using plastic soda straws, passing legislation to ban plastic bags, building containment devices in seaways, and using bioplastics (which can be composted).Eriksen’s raft trip was a campaign to garner media attention for the problem. The next phase of Algalita’s campaign will be “Junk Ride 2009,” a 2000-mile bike trip from Vancouver to Tijuana, beginning April 4. Eriksen and Cummins will visit 15 cities, give presentations, and give away 100 samples of the debris from the North Pacific Gyre.For those interested in a presentation from Algalita or for more information, go to algalita.org or junkraft.com.
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