The plastic plague: Can our oceans be saved from environmental ruin?

By Kieron Monks, for CNN

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch has become the stuff of legend. This hotspot of marine waste, created by the spiral currents of the North Pacific Gyre, has been described as a floating trash island the size of Russia.

But when filmmaker Jo Ruxton visited the location, she found clear blue water, and a deep-rooted problem.

Location and currents of the North Pacific Gyre.

“If you were diving, it looked like you had just jumped out of a plane,” says Ruxton. “But our nets were coming up completely choked with plastic pieces.”
The pieces were small enough to mingle with plankton, the tiny organisms at the base of the food web that support many fish and whale species. Researchers have found 750,000 microplastic pieces per square kilometer in the Garbage Patch, and the marine life is riddled with them.
“This was much more insidious than a huge mountain of trash which could be physically removed,” says Ruxton. “You can’t remove all the tiny pieces.”

Rising tide

Ruxton visited the site while producing the film “A Plastic Ocean,” in association with NGO Plastic Oceans, which documents the impact of half a century of rampant plastic pollution.
Around eight million tons of plastic enter the marine environment each year, and the figure is set to rise. The Ellen Macarthur Foundation estimates that 311 million tons of plastic were produced in 2014, which will double within 20 years, and projects that there will be more plastic than fish in the oceans by 2050.

Plastic is a remarkably durable material, with a potential lifespan of centuries. It does not biodegrade, but photodegrades under sunlight, breaking down into smaller and smaller pieces, which attract toxins and heavy metals as they travel on the tides. Plastic is pulled together in the powerful, circling currents of gyres, but it is also found in Arctic ice, washing up on remote islands, and infesting tourist destinations.
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