With now multiple major oceanic oil spills occupying the world’s attention, a few commentators and NGOs are trying to remind us of the various other ecological disasters that may be getting less press. In perusing Ecocide’s top ten list, I learned about the “Great Pacific Trash Vortex” for the first time. As Time Magazine described last year:
It’s an accumulation of plastic debris swept into the Pacific — whether directly from beaches or flowing out of rivers — and carried by equatorial currents into a swirling pattern to one spot between Hawaii and the mainland U.S. Plastic bags, plastic bottles, plastic toys — even last year’s Crocs — end up in the shifting vortex, which some scientists estimate to be twice the size of Texas.
Greenpeace’s website still says it’s only “the size of Texas.” Other sources I am reading now say there are actually two Pacific “gyres,” not one, and that together they’re currently estimated to be greater than the size of the continental United States. And they are only two of five such gyres globally. Whatever the amount of tonnage we’re actually talking about, it’s a disturbing – and disturbingly little-talked-about trend. And, as the Time article continues:
As plastic use increases, especially in rapidly growing developing nations on the western end of the Pacific, that vortex will continue to grow. “It’s huge,” notes Doug Woodring, an entrepreneur and ocean conservationist in Hong Kong. But “unfortunately the ocean is a big place, and once it’s out of sight, it’s out of mind.”
Beyond simply not making it worse, I’ve seen few proposals for fixing the problem… until this past month. How about collecting all the garbage and turning it in the world’s first recycled habitat? The idea is being proposed by a Dutch architecture firm and described here.
Hmm… well first I’d like to know more about how they plan to cull all that plastic from the water in the first place. It’s not clear to me how techologically feasible that is, though if the problem is simply political will (the vortex exists in international waters and no one is really responsible for it) then a project like this could make some sense.
The Futurist’s Paul Raven is skeptical for other reasons:
Hmmm… an ideal candidate for city-state status, then. But any nation-state along the edge of the Pacific is going to be a bit uneasy about a recycled island that can move itself around at will, and which isn’t dependent on anyone for anything…
“Recycled Island” is a great idea from a technological perspective, but the geopolitics are too horrifying to contemplate. Think of the way Antarctica is being scrabbled over, thanks to its oil reserves; the very same economic pressures and scarcities will eventually make a huge lump of plastic floating in the sea look like a natural resource well worth exploiting.
I don’t know. First of all, who says the island will be independent of everyone else and why should an artificial island be any more horrifying than any other small oceanic statelet? Second, who says it will be floating around at will? The gyre stays where it is because of ocean currents.
If the collective action problems associated with the sovereign states system are part of what allows problems like this to arise and persist, perhaps either an internationalized governance structure akin to the Antarctica treaty or a post-sovereign “city-state” paradigm make more sense than doing nothing.
UPDATE: For more, here’s a thoughtful short film about our relationship to plastic – HT to “dsn”.