Planet Earth is rubbish

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I spent much of my Saturday doing an interesting thing. Together with another 30 or so people, I went along to my local nature reserve (Chessel Bay Nature Reserve, Southampton) and took part in an effort to clear the shore of its tons upon tons of human crap. Unsatisfied with our constant use of resources, our epic, manic pollution, and our rampant annihilation of other species, we aim to cover as much of the planet's surface as possible in our waste: we are literally doing our very best to swamp natural environments with the discarded shit that we can't be bothered to deal with properly. You don't need much practical experience in this sort of thing to gain an even lower view of humanity than you had beforehand...

The larger objects can at least be collected: among the two bin-bags of crap that I collected were untold numbers of used tampon applicators, plastic bottle tops, plastic bags, drinking straws, two rubber ducks, and thousands upon thousands of polystyrene fragments. But most disturbing were the millions upon millions of tiny plastic fragments, referred to as nurdles or mermaid's tears (the latter term is particularly inappropriate given that it seems a bit of a smear on mermaids to imply that they might be involved in global pollution). Nurdles are said to result from the constant attrition of floating plastic waste, created as plastic objects bump together and break apart while in the water.

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However, as you can see from the photo here, note that most of them are small, round beads. My mum (who also participated in the event) proposes that these are the pellets that are produced by the recycling of plastic bottles, and after a bit of research on this I think she might be right. What the hell they're doing contributing to pollution like this is a good question. In fact there were so many nurdles that in many places the entire beach - as far down as I could dig - was predominantly composed of them: they formed the very fabric of the beach itself, held in place by the reeds that grow through them.

Plastic crap can be thought of as having a two-tiered effect on animals and ecosystems. The most obvious immediate effect on animals is that a huge list of marine species - predominantly all of those that have evolved to prey on plasticky-looking prey items (like sea jellies, planktonic crustaceans, and fish larvae) - are routinely eating plastic, and it is killing them. More than 110 seabird species, including albatrosses, fulmars, penguins, gannets, skuas, phalaropes, and even Antarctic prions, are on record as having ingested plastic debris (e.g., van Franeker 1985, Azzarello & Van Vleet 1987, Auman et al. 1998, 2003). Statistically, more than nine out of ten fulmar chicks are said to die from ingesting plastic rubbish, and of 560 fulmars included in one study, each bird had ingested an average of 44 plastic objects. Sea turtles and marine mammals now routinely eat plastic debris, or are injured or killed following entanglement with plastic debris. Sea turtles are suffering in particular, given that many floating plastic objects resemble the cnidarians that the turtles prey on. They die from blocked throats or starvation [image below shows the Chessel Bay haul near the end of the day].

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The second effect is less obvious, but it is more sinister and, in ecological terms, more pervasive. Plastic fragments might be assumed to be inert and inoffensive but the stuff that plastics contain - benzene, vinyl chloride, and a long list of other substances - leach out of the rubbish and are incorporated into the environment, and hence into living things. PCBs and other pollutants concentrated in plastics have been linked to cancer and reduced fertility in laboratory animals, genital deformity in human babies, stuff like that, and because many of the plastic fragments floating in the sea and washing up on the beaches are literally decades old, they still contain types of pollutants that are now banned.

The sad news is that it's not just beaches that are now swamped in layers of plastic crap. Two immense areas composed of 'plastic soup', the Western and Eastern Pacific Garbage Patches, are now said to occupy much of the central Pacific, covering an area approximately twice that of the continental United States, weighing about 3.5 million tons, and stretching from the Californian coast, past Hawaii, and almost as far as Japan. It is thought that about 20% of the junk has originated from ships and oil platforms whereas the rest comes from land. The Pacific garbage patches have gotten a lot of press, but they are far from unique, with similar accumulations present in the North and South Atlantic and Indian Ocean. In fact the United Nations Environmental Program estimates that an average of 46,000 bits of plastic rubbish now float in every single square mile of ocean, with perhaps 40% of the sea's surface littered by plastic [image below from 2007 article here: pretty depressing but worthy reading on the deaths of Pacific seabirds and other animals resulting from plastic pollution].

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Like every other human in the developed/developing world, I know that I am part of the problem, even though I have never dropped litter my entire life, plus I try hard to minimise what plastic waste I and my family produce. We can all do what we can to minimise the amount of plastic rubbish we discard: stop using plastic bags, re-use containers, dispose of rubbish responsibly, don't select products that overdo it on the packaging. But with so many people in the world, so much production of and reliance on plastic, and so little being done, plus so many people who obviously don't care in the slightest, things are only going to get worse (Ryan 1993). As Agent Smith says to Morpheus, humanity is the cancer that is eating the planet alive. I have never been a fan of humanity, and I'm afraid that cleaning the anthropogenic crap from a beach has not done my look on this subject a world of good.

On another subject - Tet Zoo is going to be quiet this week due to 'Britain's changing herpetofauna' (a talk being given at Edmund Kell Hall, Bellevue Road, Southampton, on Tuesday 4th March at 7-30pm: come along if you can) and the Big Cats in Britain conference at the end of the week. See you on the other side.

Refs - -

Auman, H. J., Ludwig, J. P., Giesy, J. P. & Colborn, T. 1998. Plastic ingestion by Laysan albatross chicks on Sand Island, Midway Atoll in 1994 and 1995. In Robertson, G. & Gales, R. (eds). Albatross Biology and Conservation. Surrey Beatty (Chipping Norton), pp. 239-244.

- ., Woehler, E. J., Riddle, M. J. & Burton, H. 2003. First evidence of ingestion of plastic debris by seabirds at Sub-Antarctic Heard Island. Marine Ornithology 32, 105-106.

Azzarello, M. Y. & Van Vleet, E. S. 1987. Marine birds and plastic pollution. Marine Ecology, Progress Series 37, 295-303.

Ryan, P. G. 1993. Marine litter keeps increasing. Nature 361, 23.

van Franeker, J. A. 1985. Plastic ingestion in the North Atlantic fulmar. Marine Pollution Bulletin 16, 367-369.


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Ive heard of some of these problems and the pacific rubbish raft. Wasnt aware of them in the other oceans though. Its a very sad state of affairs with our laziness/incompentence/greed has lead to such widespread ill affects.
The major problem I many places I visit is fishing line (+hooks!). In summer I usual end up coming home with at least one piece to throw away. The most worrying occurence was in a wild life trust reserve which is an important wintering ground and migration refuelling point for 1000s of birds. Mind you I also found spent shotgun cartridges there to, in the no shooting zone....all a bit depressing :(

My father collects glass from the beach on the south-west coast of Australia. He has tons of it, and I thought it must have taken a while to collect. But when I went down there and actually stated looking, it was really dense. I would say there's tree or four pieces on the surface per square foot. Amazing.

From what I've been reading about recycling recently, it seems like it might not be such a good idea after all--and if those beads are a byproduct, well that's one more reason to take a second look at the whole enterprise.

As a good friend of mine points out, there is a descending priority order to the Reduce-Reuse-Recycle mantra, even though Recycle will ultimately Reduce to some degree.

Fran Crowe has an excellent website, at which she documents rubbish collections from her beach walks in the UK, e.g. Aldeburgh, Felixstowe, Southwold. Here's the page with links to her various projects.

Well done! On behalf of blue whales, albatrosses and red-eyed tree frogs I congratulate you!

BTW - did you consider job of future paleontologists? Instead of iridium in K/T layer there will be plastic strata marking Anthropocene. Different rubbish will be significant fossils instead of foraminiferans. Entire classification systems and evolutionary trees of bottles, bags and canisters will be drawn. Hermit crabs will straighten their abdomens to fit into bottles instead of snail shells. Poison arrow frogs will store toxic degradation byproducts passed to them in food chain. ;)


I had no idea of the Pacific Garbage Patches.

Instead of iridium in K/T layer there will be plastic strata marking Anthropocene.

I doubt it. We'll mine those strata come Peak Oil.

And for poison arrow frogs you need a rainforest first...

By David Marjanović (not verified) on 03 Mar 2008 #permalink

humanity is the cancer that is eating the planet alive. I have never been a fan of humanity, and I'm afraid that cleaning the anthropogenic crap from a beach has not done my look on this subject a world of good.

It's so hard to keep supressing the tears of misanthropic rage. Yet I too drove my Jeep to work this morning, am consuming coal-derived electricity as I type, and am wearing shoes with significant plastic components.
I have to agree with a commenter on Chris Clarke's blog that we should change our species's binomial to Pan diablo.

By Sven DiMilo (not verified) on 03 Mar 2008 #permalink

I'm somehow on spring break right now, and a cleaning up project does seem like a good way of relieving the guilt of not doing anything. Not only do people illegally fish in the nature preserve across the street, but they make a huge mess while they're doing it.

Bacteria are clever, have any of them figured out how to digest plastic yet?

How timely...I just did a little research on the Pacific Garbage Patch a few weeks ago and it's absolutely horrifying. Alan Weisman's The World Without Us covers the subject pretty well.

Bacteria are clever, have any of them figured out how to digest plastic yet?

There is a Larry Niven story that tangentially mentions a species of bacteria evolving that can eat polyethylenes, and thus causing all sorts of trouble for humanity.

Don't recall which it was though.

I know there are microbes that handily digest alkanes, but I don't know if anything will touch double bonds.

Anything will touch double bonds. Even we do -- our mitochondria deal with unsaturated fatty acids just fine.

Yet I too drove my Jeep to work this morning

A Jeep? To work? Where do you work???

By David Marjanović (not verified) on 04 Mar 2008 #permalink

A mediocre novel by Kit Pedlar and Gerry Davis in 1971 has a bacterium engineered to consume petroleum products destroy civilization by eating the insulation off all the wiring, in "Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater". The story originated from the first episode of a british TV series called "Doomwatch". Michael Crichton was unable to resist having his "Andromeda Strain" (1969) also eat plastic; no doubt Mutant 59 cribbed from there.

By Nathan Myers (not verified) on 04 Mar 2008 #permalink

A Jeep? To work? Where do you work???

well, it's a Cherokee, not that big a deal. Has gotten me in and out of some pretty touch-&-go places in the Mojave Desert in field seasons past, though.
During a blizzard last month I drove across the state of Connecticut in 4-wheel drive; that was kind of fun.

By Sven DiMIlo (not verified) on 04 Mar 2008 #permalink

Well, that ruined my day. Nothing I do will help in any significant way, unless everyone else does. I'm in the US, so they won't. Why bother?

Ho Ho Ho!

It turns out that certain strains of _Mycobacterium_ will digest short-strain alkenes quite handily.

Forget genetic modification; bacteria evolve fast enough that you could have a rolicksome good time breeding them until they can digest LDPE.

Can I hear your best supervillain laugh please?