A "plastic soup" of waste floating in the Pacific Ocean is growing at an alarming rate and now covers an area twice the size of the continental United States, scientists have said.
It's big; enormous in fact. But it's certainly not clever. There is a massive area of circulating rubbish in the Pacific Ocean, stretching from the coast of California to Japan. Around 100 million tons of floating, mostly plastic, debris bobs just below the surface of the waters, covering an area twice the size of the continental United States. This island of trash is not visible from satellite photographs because the plastic is translucent and lies beneath the surface. But it is there. And it is growing.
We in Europe cannot afford to shrug off the problem. The Mediterranean is the most polluted sea in the world, with 2,000 pieces of plastic per square kilometre. The problem is less conspicuous because most of it lies on the seabed and there are only very weak tides to bring it together. Our polluted seas are a depressing phenomenon. These colossal tracts of trash are an indictment of how careless with the environment we have become. Historically, the flotsam of the oceans has biodegraded. But modern plastics take hundreds of years to disintegrate.
As Mario Rodriguez of Greenpeace says: "We have to understand the sea is not a tip; it will constantly return to us what we throw in."
The solution should be obvious. We must cut down drastically on our use of plastics. We also need to start disposing of them properly rather than allowing them to end up cast into the sea. Finally we need to begin removing our choking rubbish from the oceans. After years of thoughtless dumping, it's time to take in the trash.
Could there be a more potent symbol of our throwaway society than a plastic bag, snagged and flapping on a suburban hedge? Even if a plastic bag is disposed of properly, it is likely to end up in a landfill site, where it will decompose for centuries, emitting harmful carbon dioxide.
The good news is that there is a simple and proven solution to this environmental blight. Ireland imposed a modest plastic bag tax in 2002, which has reduced their use by 90 per cent. The bad news is that, despite the fact that Britain's plastic bag pollution is every bit as bad as it used to be across the Irish Sea, our own government refuses to follow Dublin's example.
Yet something is stirring at a grass-roots level in this country. Earlier this year, a local campaigner in the Devon village of Modbury, Rebecca Hosking, persuaded all 43 local shops to substitute their plastic bags with reusable cloth bags. Traders in 80 other small towns around Britain are following suit. Brighton and Hove council last week became the largest authority in Britain to offer support for a voluntary ban. And the heads of London's 33 local authorities voted yesterday to support a tax on plastic bags within the capital.
Even supermarkets have sensed which way the wind is blowing. Marks & Spencer is trialling a 5p levy on its plastic bags. Sainsbury's is promoting a 10p "bag for life". Tesco gives reward points to shoppers who reuse their old ones. It all makes the Government's refusal to take a lead by imposing an Irish-style levy look somewhat perverse.
The Department for the Environment justifies itself by arguing that a levy would encourage people to use bags "made from other materials or alternative forms of packaging, which may be equally, or more, damaging to the environment". But this misses the point. A modest levy on plastic bags encourages people to think about the polyethylene sacks that are thrust into their hands whenever they visit the supermarket or the corner shop. The experience of Ireland has shown that, when subject to a levy, shoppers begin to consider whether they ought to reuse the bags, perhaps even switching to a regular cloth one. As an additional benefit, they give more thought to how they dispose of the bags.
It is likely that the real reason the Government is resisting a tax is that it fears it would be unpopular among shoppers. But they are too cautious. Surveys have shown that people would be willing to accept robust action clearly directed at reducing plastic bag waste.
A plastic bag tax would have a rapid and wholly beneficial effect on our environment. It is time that the Government had the courage of its supposedly green convictions and implemented a nationwide levy.
"Trash Island" discovered in the Pacific Ocean
Pravda 24 feb 04
Berlin, February 24th. An entire "island" composed of trash has been discovered in the Pacific Ocean. It is as large as the Central Europe.
According to the German magazine "Geo", plastic objects prevail among the trash. The "island" weights approximately three million tons in its entirety. This is six times greater than a number of natural plankton.
Scientists claim that the "island", situated between California and Hawaiian islands, forms circular ocean currents which now accumulate wastes by the shores of Japan and the US and bring it to the center of the Ocean.