I grew up next to the Pacific Ocean. I have fond memories of playing along its beaches as a child, and there were many days as an adult when I found myself staring out into its immensity. If there is any natural place in the world for which I feel an affinity, it is the Pacific Ocean.

North Pacific Gyre

You can imagine my distress then, when I read about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Technically, this area of the northern Pacific Ocean is called the North Pacific Gyre, a clockwise-swirling vortex of ocean currents twice the size of the continental United States. It’s called the Garbage Patch because the motion of the currents tends to accumulate marine debris.

In the past, this was not a problem for the Pacific and its denizens. Sea birds, marine mammals, and fish were well adapted to make use of driftwood and other debris in the Gyre. The last few decades, however, have seen a dramatic new threat to ocean health arise — plastic.

According to the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, more than a hundred million tons of plastic debris have accumulated in the North Pacific Gyre. A hundred million tons! There is so much plastic, that it outnumbers the zooplankton six to one.

This is plastic that will never disappear. Plastic doesn’t biodegrade. Instead it photo-degrades, which means that sunlight breaks it down into smaller and smaller pieces. Those small pieces drift in the ocean and are mistaken for food by fish and birds.

Plastic Jellies

For example, seabirds like the North Pacific albatross are often found dead with innards full of plastic. Things like cigarette lighters and toothbrushes. Also, sea turtles will mistake plastic bags for food, thinking that they are jellyfish. These turtles will often be found dead with their intestines clogged by plastic bags.

The result? One million seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals die each year due to ingestion of or entanglement in plastics. And even worse — these small bits of plastic act as sponges for non-water soluble pollutants and toxins. These poisons reach concentrations up to one million times higher in the plastic than in their free-floating state.

Filter feeders that eat these plastics are in turn eaten by fish, which are in turn eaten by larger and larger predators. In many cases, this chain concentrates the poisons even further and leads it directly to human beings.

Recycle Plastic

The scope of the problem is astounding, but I refuse to believe that nothing can be done. Care2 is about making a difference in the world. There are places around the world contemplating banning plastic bags, and I plan on supporting those efforts. On a more personal level, I will re-commit to using cloth bags and reusable drink containers.

If you think that won’t make much of a difference, think again. For each reusable bag, another 400 plastic bags will keep from being used. Every reusable water bottle will keep another 167 plastic bottles from entering the environment.

If you’d like to join me, our friends at the Surfrider Foundation are hosting a pledge at http://go.care2.com/15229743. Won’t you commit to keep our oceans healthy?

For more information on plastics and the ocean, check out: