But can ocean trash be made into drysuits?

March 28, 2008

What to do with plastic trash? Clearly, make it into formalwear.

This ballgown was made by sewing together 12″ squares of the clear blue plastic backing from Plexiglass. The corset was made with mustard packets.

Personally, I fear that mustard packets won’t give enough support. I want my recycled corset to be made out of nuclear warheads. Or at least recycled guns with full  functionality.

More photos of the plastic gown here.

Ireland’s plastic bag tax successful

February 2, 2008

The New York Times reports that a mere 33-cent tax on plastic shopping bags in Ireland has reduced use by 94%.  Apparently it’s more of a social sanction than an actual financial hardship – using plastic bags has become tacky. I wonder if this holds for all segments of Irish society.

The only faint stirring of this kind of social pressure in the US has been the designer “I’m Not a Plastic Bag” obsession last year. People waited in line for hours to buy this $15 canvas bag by some extremely important bag designer.  The bag in question spawned a bunch of responses, including bag emblazoned with “I’m Not a Plastic Bag, Either” and “I’m Not a Smug Twat.”

Clearly, the New York model is ridiculous, especially since I bet the above bag is SO last season by now. But reusable bags don’t have to be snooty – Trader Joe’s sells perfectly excellent bags for 99 cents. Do you think that the US would ever pass a plastic bag tax? Would lobbying for one cause Americans  to perceive environmentalism as yet more out-of-touch silliness from rich white people?

Greenpeace needs remedial oceanography

January 31, 2008

Eric found this Greenpeace animation, which tries to demonstrate trash accumulation in the North Pacific Gyre. It’s really pretty – too bad the oceanography is entirely wrong. Why is the California Current sweeping through the Central Valley? (Does this mean LA has finally been swept out to sea?) The Alaska Current is not actually over the land of Alaska. And there’s an entirely novel gyre over by Japan – the Kuroshio Current has run away to Kamchatka. Compare:

Still of very very wrong Greenpeace animation:

Actual correct currents (courtesy Ocean Motion):


Oh, Greenpeace – I kind of love your costumes and your earnestness and your enthusiasm. I’m glad you’re out there lobbying and protesting. But Greenpeace, when you’re writing about the North Pacific Gyre you can’t just put the ocean currents every which way. Having the Kuroshio (the Gulf Stream of the Pacific) going the wrong way is particularly harmful to your goal, since it is the Kuroshio that brings plastics from Asia into the gyre. And when your incorrect figure is the second google hit for “North Pacific Gyre Map” – well, that’s way more embarrassing than being the guy in the whale suit.

Journey to the center of the gyre

January 21, 2008

The ORV Alguita (previously) has set off on a new journey to the North Pacific Gyre to examine marine debris. You can follow along with their adventures at their blog. If you’re a teacher or a student, they have a special school-related blog where the crew will answer questions.

The Alguita is run by Algalita Marine Research Foundation, who are the go-to people on trash in the North Pacific Gyre. They brought the gyre to national attention, and pretty much every single paper on the trash gyre in the scientific literature is associated with them, since nobody else is doing any research yet. (though NOAA has made motions.) The lack of multiple data sources is somewhat disturbing for such a big, high-profile issue.

I would really like to see a big oceanographic vessel make a trip out to the gyre. The Algalita folks do fantastic work, but their vessel is much, much smaller than the usual research size. This means that they can’t use large, heavy sampling equipment or operate in marginal conditions. For a size comparison, here’s the Alguita’s A-frame (those slanty white bars in the background), which is used to deploy & retrieve equipment. Here’s a photo of yours truly (in the baseball hat) operating the A-frame on the Sproul, SIO’s smallest ship.

Furthermore, none of the Alguita’s crew are trained oceanographers. There’s a lot of specialized knowledge out there about how to sample the big-ass ocean. (I don’t have it, being a coastal ecology type, but there’s a ludicrous amount to know.) A trained crew can sample around the clock, continuously, for the entire voyage. A small ship just doesn’t have that ability. The tradeoff, of course, is that even the smallest SIO ship costs $12,000 per DAY at sea.

Despite my nitpicking, I’m glad the Alguita is out there, and I am quite curious to see what they bring back. For any San Diego or SoCal readers, one of the Alguita’s crew, Marcus Eriksen, will be reporting on their findings at SIO on April 16th. I’m sure there will be PLENTY of plastic to go around.

China bans plastic shopping bags

January 12, 2008

Like South Africa, Ireland, Taiwan, and Bangladesh, China has banned free plastic shopping bags. The flimsiest bags are banned outright, while merchants will be required to charge extra for the more study type. Go China!

Screw that scene in American Beauty – plastic bags are ugly litter, clog storm drains, and blow into waterways. At sea, 90% of the trash I see is plastic bags. They never biodegrade, strangle sea life (particularly endangered sea turtle that mistake them for jellyfish) and are a navigational hazard (picking shreds of bag out of the propellor is Not Fun).

Australia may be next to implement a plastic bag ban. Will the US be an environmental luddite on yet another issue? Probably, but write your elected representatives anyway!

Special bonus! Sing along with the Australian minister of the environment as he rocks out with Midnight Oil. I *heart* Peter Garrett.

Trash event tonight!

December 21, 2007

From San Diego Oceans Foundation:

Trash Bash Art Exhibit
Friday, December 21 | 6:00-8:00 pm
Wyland Gallery (1025 Prospect St, La Jolla)

One month ago at the San Diego Oceans Foundation’s first annual Trash Bash beach and bay clean up, volunteers created works of art from the trash they collected. This Friday, December 21st, Trash Bash art will be exhibited at the Wyland Gallery in La Jolla among his gorgeous paintings and sculptures of marine habitats. Artist Scott Wyland was deemed a “Marine Michelangelo” by USA Today and is very active in ocean conservation.

This special exhibit will also shed light on the effect pollution and trash have on our marine environment. Did you know that Americans use 2.5 million plastic bottles every HOUR? Do you know what a nurdle is and why it is so detrimental to marine life? Learn all this and more while enjoying scrumptous appetizers, beverages and ocean views from the second floor of the gallery.

North Pacific Gyre: Never fear, the feds are here!

November 6, 2007

Update 6/4/08 – No, the feds are not actually studying the Gyre.

The San Francisco Chronicle reports that the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) is going to start studying the North Pacific Trash Gyre. Until now, much of the evidence for the Gyre has come from the work of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation and Charles Moore, a retired woodworking magnate who has taken up the gyre as his life’s work. Moore generally describes the gyre has a vast soup of tiny bits of plastic floating anywhere from 3 inches to 300 feet below the surface and taking up an area twice the size of Texas (The Oyster’s Garter has described the gyre before).

The gyre doesn’t really show up on satellite since it’s mostly plastic and mostly underwater. However, NOAA will use boat-launched unmanned planes to skim the water and take samples. The director of NOAA’s Marine Debris program, Holly Bamford, told the Chronicle she doesn’t dispute the existence of the gyre, but she wants to know how big it really is, and check it’s density. However, she says the research is only the planning stages – it could be 18 months before boat-launched planes are in the air. But Bamford sounds optimistic in the article. She actually mentions the idea of cleaning it up.

“But before we embark on a huge removal process,” Bamford told the Chronicle, “we need to understand what we’re dealing with.”

Why there are no pictures of the North Pacific Trash Gyre

October 23, 2007

A lot of folks over on Digg were very skeptical of the existence of the North Pacific Trash Gyre. They want to know: why are there no photos of floating heaps of trash? Why can’t you see the giant trash island the size of Texas on Google Earth?

When I learned of the trash gyre, I was equally skeptical, due to common misconceptions that get perpetuated in mainstream media articles. The most common misconception is that the trash pile is like an island, or a dense pile like this one in San Diego Harbor. It’s not packed in as tight as that – it’s more like a dense collection of tiny floating pieces of plastic, most of which are not on the surface. A big container ship or naval vessel going through there would probably not notice much out of the ordinary – after all, there is some degree of plastic trash floating on the surface all over the world.

To really get a sense of how much plastic is in there, you have to do a trawl, which entails dragging a net with a bucket on the end behind your boat. Here’s a photo of a bongo trawl taken off of southern California. (Credit: Barbeau Lab, SIO) And here’s a photo of what a normal bongo trawl should produce – lots of zooplankton, a few invertebrates, and the occasional small fish.

Now, contrast this with the results of a trawl from the North Pacific Gyre. Here’s the bongo net being hauled up – see how the ocean looks normal? But the contents – plastic, plastic, and more plastic.* (Credit: Algalita Marine Research Foundation).  When all that plastic collects somewhere, you get beaches like this one in the NW Hawaiian Islands.

For this reason, the trash gyre would be very, very hard to clean up. The plastic is so small, and so scattered, that it would take high-intensity trawling similar to that for shrimp. And shrimp trawling kills 10 pounds of non-targeted life (sharks, turtles, fish, you name it) for every pound of shrimp gathered. (Yes, Forrest Gump lied to you – for some reason they didn’t want drowned turtles next to Tom Hank’s angelic self.) The mortality caused by trying to remove all the trash in the gyre would probably be similar. We’re just going to have to live with it and try to prevent it from getting any bigger.

*Note: some of these results are from manta trawls intead of bongos – it’s just a differently shaped net.

North Pacific Trash Gyre gone wild!

October 23, 2007

Wow – my post on the North Pacific Trash Gyre has gotten a huge number of hits today. Is there breaking news of some kind that I totally missed? Hey, searchers, tell me what you want to know, and I’ll do my best to answer any questions or direct you to useful resources.

It’s a whale! It’s a fish! It’s…the North Pacific Trash Gyre!

September 24, 2007

[EDIT: If you're looking for a photo of the North Pacific Trash Gyre, go here.]

The ocean is really, really big. This may be obvious, but it gets brought home especially hard if, say, one happens to be a marine biologist who kinda accidentally misplaces one’s study site and has to spend three hours swimming around underwater looking for it. Hypothetically, of course.

The Pacific is not big enough, however, to hide all the plastic crap that comes pouring off North American and Asia. Many of the broken flipflops, lost plastic bags, abandoned waterbottles, and so forth collect in the North Pacific Gyre, which is essentially a big slow gentle whirlpool. But instead of sucking the trash down, it just collects at the center, forming a floating trash heap the size of Texas.

Capt. Charles Moore accidentally sailed through the gyre a few years ago and was so shocked by vast vistas of trash that he formed the nonprofit Algalita Marine Research Foundation, based in LA. They’ve got a research cruise sailing through the gyre right now, trawling and categorizing trash – read more on their blog. Here’s a great photo of a barnacle-encrusted life jacket that they found floating by.

Read more about the North Pacific Trash Gyre:

- “Plague of Plastic Chokes the Seas”, part of the excellent & incredibly depressing LA Times series Altered Oceans.
– Jean-Michel Cousteau visited our brand-new national monument, the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands
Metafilter thread with lots more links


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