Monday, August 13, 2012

A New Perspective on the Great Garbage Patch

When a blog post is entitled The Eighth Continent: Searching of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, I expected more of the usual about how huge the amount of garbage is and how bad plastic is and... After all, calling it the Eight Continent creates a pretty strong visual image, and not a nice one at that.

But this excerpt from Andrew Blackwell's book Visit Sunny Chernobyl: And Other Adventures in the World's Most Polluted Places is different. It is an honest look at the situation and possible solutions.
"These Garbage Patch conversations tend to follow a certain profile. First there is the flash of recognition, embedded with nuggets of misinformation and cliché: Right! The giant plastic island! The one the size of Texas! It's not an island, you say. You also want to interrogate them on the subject of Texas. Why must the Garbage Patch’s size must [sic] always—always—be measured in Texas units?

Ok, it’s not an island, they say, backing away a little. It's more of a pile. You narrow your eyes. Seriously, how do you pile anything on the ocean? Eventually, with coaxing, they let go of the island imagery, of impractical notions of how things pile, of Texas. Then comes the inevitable question: Can it be cleaned up?

A lot of people have considered this question, and a broad consensus has emerged among scientists and environmentalists. I'm happy to summarize: GET REAL. I know everybody loves the pipe dream of a technological fix, but we're talking about the ocean here. Even assuming that it’s possible to drag nets back and forth across hundreds of thousands of square miles of ocean, and that it would be worth the massive use of fuel … even granted these improbabilities, there remains the intractable fact of the confetti."

Andrew was on the crew for a boat that was collecting trash in order to understand the flow lines, the particular streams that take trash into the vortex, and also discovered what drives many environmentalists.
"The point, we realized, was that our goal was not to study the debris in any useful way, but simply to find it. We were looking for what Mary referred to as "current lines" of trash, narrow bands of high density. Mary spoke again and again of the current lines, and began to suspect that if the Kaisei returned to port heavy with trash, it would serve to validate Project Kaisei’s dream of cleanup. But for that, we would have to find the mother lode. It was the paradoxical symbiosis that can afflict any activist. You come to depend on the problem you’re fighting. That we were so focused on finding the Garbage Patch in a concrete and spectacular form was tragic—particularly because it isn’t a visually spectacular problem. As we would discover once we reached the Gyre, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch doesn’t actually look like much—unless you’re paying attention. The plastic confetti are invisible unless you scrutinize the surface of the water. And the millions of plastic bottles and laundry hampers and snarls of old fishing tackle are not clumped into a single mass. Yet the Garbage Patch is indeed a problem of vast scale and implications.

This conflict between the reality of the problem and its non-visual nature is at the root of the myth of the plastic island. We hunger for a compelling image to help us understand the issue. But depending too much on spectacular imagery can actually limit our understanding. We create islands where none exist, and then waste our time searching for them. We become Ahabs without a whale."

Getting back to the imagery of the "garbage patch", Andrew creates what I think is the best one yet:
"If we absolutely must have an image to use in thinking of the Garbage Patch, it should be that of a galaxy. The Garbage Patch is like the Milky Way, an impossibly massive spiral that, because of its very vastness, is also phenomenally diffuse. You could pass right through it without ever bumping into a star or a planet. But that doesn’t mean it’s not there. And please note: Your galaxy is many times the size of Texas."(emphasis added)
That's imagery that needs to become far more popular - not an island or a continent [*], but a galaxy. Very dilute, and extremely large, and in the case of this galaxy, something that just shouldn't be there at all.

[*] How did BoingBoing come up with "The Eight Continent" for the title of this excerpt? Didn't they read the article? No, I guess they didn't.

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