The Great Pacific Plastic Soup

Rubbish dump found floating in Pacific Ocean is twice the size of America

A rubbish dump twice the size of the United States has been discovered floating in the Pacific Ocean.

The vast expanse of debris, made up of plastic junk including footballs, kayaks, Lego blocks and carrier bags, is kept together by swirling underwater currents.

It stretches from 500 nautical miles off the Californian coast, across the northern Pacific, past Hawaii and almost as far as Japan.

Because the rubbish, which has been called a “plastic soup” and a “trash vortex”, is translucent and lies just below the water’s surface it cannot be seen in satellite photographs.

American oceanographer Charles Moore discovered the Great Pacific Garbage Patch by chance in 1997 while taking a short cut home from a yacht race.

He said: “Every time I came on deck there was trash floating by. How could we have fouled such a huge area? How could this go on for a week?”

Around a fifth of sea junk is thrown off ships or oil platforms – the rest comes from land

He warned that the rubbish could double in size over the next decade if consumers do not cut back on their use of plastics. More than a million seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals die every year as a result of plastic rubbish.

Syringes, cigarette lighters and toothbrushes have all been found inside the stomachs of dead seabirds.

The rubbish can also be dangerous for humans, because tiny plastic pellets in the sea can attract man-made chemicals which then enter the food chain.

Research director Dr Marcus Eriksen said: “What goes into the ocean goes into these animals and onto your dinner plate. It’s that simple.”

Oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer compared the rubbish to a living entity. He said: “It moves around like a big animal without a leash.”  Describing what happens when it reaches land, he said: “The garbage patch barfs, and you get a beach covered with this confetti of plastic.”

The rubbish dump is made up of two linked areas either side of Hawaii. Around one-fifth of the junk is thrown off ships or oil platforms, while the rest comes from the land.

Related Reading

Sir Michael on drivers of ecosystem change and climate change battles……

This is an excerpt of the speech by Sir Michael on the 27th of May, 2010 at the Oslo Climate and Forest Conference.

“Looking back, attempts to resolve deforestation have been suffocated by misunderstandings. The North told us the causes (of deforestation) were issues like corruption and land rights. But, these are largely symptoms, not drivers. Developing countries understand that economics drive deforestation ‐‐ pure and simple! The real problem is an international market failure. Today, markets value forests more destroyed than standing.

Together, we must find ways to value forests more alive than dead!

In PNG, deforestation and degradation contribute over 90% of our total emissions. And many other REDD+ countries have a similar profile. For all of us, forests are our heritage, history and culture. But, development options, like logging and agricultural expansion, create tremendous pressure on our remaining forest reserves. ……..However, PNG is committed to change direction. Clearly, we cannot win the battle against climate change unless we first defeat deforestation.”

I pulled out 9 points worth noting from less than two paragraphs given above.

  1. Deforestation is a symptom of corruption.
  2. Land rights is neither a driver nor a symptom of corruption
  3. Economics drive deforestation
  4. We must value forests more alive than dead
  5. Degradation and deforestation  contribute over 90% of  our total emissions
  6. Forests is our heritage, history and culture
  7. Development options create tremendous pressure  on our remaining forest reserve
  8. PNG is committed to change direction
  9. PNG cannot battle against climate change unless we first defeat deforestation

There is no denying that, the forest is our heritage, it contains our history and has shaped our culture (point 6).  Indeed, our culture is the accumulated wealth of experiences and adaptations  over time and is the fundamental basis of our language, our social relations and spirituality. The rich detail of this knowledge system and the specific management practices of natural resources, as well as religious beliefs and rituals based on this knowledge is evidence of the long interaction between our forefathers and nature.  The reverence our forefathers showed for these customs and traditions was because their  survival depended on rituals that kept  this knowledge alive (which sadly, in our generation is being  overtaken by the glamor of the western culture). Indeed, for any PNGean, it is intuitive understanding that forests have more value being alive than dead (point 4).

Sir Michael hits the nail on the head, indeed, economics drive deforestation (point 3). The demand for tropical logs in North America and Europe and even Japan for instance, creates the market that loggers have to fill. These developed countries have the money to spend on luxuries like matching furnitures made from tropical hardwood – this demand drive logging in forested countries. Loggers have no committment to protecting livelihoods; their bottom line is maximum profit from an available market.

Preserving a rich cultural heritage or buying into the glamour of economic development, is a dilemma for forested countries including PNG. Without other options to raise the currency needed for economic development, countries are forced to sell their natural resources. Indeed, developmental aspirations put a tremendous pressure on forest reserves  (point 7). However, as a sovereign nation, PNG has the right decide its own path to achieving development without being dictated to by outsiders. Whether we should engage outsiders to dig, log and fish our resources now, or whether we should develop these resources one at a time and work to develop our own human resource in the meantime – these decisions reside with our leaders. As a sovereign nation, it is up to the government to balance economic development with forest conservation to protect livelihoods.

Sir Michael tells the world that attempts have been made to resolve deforestation.  What attempts, when the lowand of PNG has been mapped as Forest Management Area (FMA); what attempts, when logging activities are happening  in protected areas like the Wildlife Management Areas (WMA)? If PNG is committed to change (point 8), then it definitely is not showing.

The unique land tenure system in PNG is NOT a symptom of corruption (point 2), rather the  unique system, affords protection to customary land when it declares that a landowner cannot sell, lease or otherwise dispose of customary land or customary rights, and that any attempt to do so will be void (Land Act 1996).  This system discourages the sale of customary land because the founding fathers of the Constitution knew that land is a social security for the landowner.

On the other hand, numerous evidence exist to show that  indeed, deforestation through large-scale commercial logging  in PNG is a symptom of corruption (point 2).  This is a quote from a member of parliament on logging in his province as was documented in the Barnett Forest Inquiry, “It would be fair to say, of some of the companies, that they now roam the countryside with the self-assurance of robber barons; bribing politicians and leaders, creating social disharmony and ignoring laws in order to gain access to, rip out, and export the last remnants of the province’s valuable timber.These companies are fooling the landowners and making use of corrupt, gullible and unthinking politicians.” Indeed, the lack of political will for forest conservation, as well as lack of enforcement and prosecution of “robber barons” is a major driver of deforestation in PNG.

Sir Michael, however, forgot to mention that the  high population growth rate (2.7%) is  also a driver of land degradation. Land degradation happens through small-scale agriculture which is comparable in percentage to forest loss to the deforestation caused by logging (45.6% and 48.2% respectively).   This is to be expected because bulk of the population (80%) live in rural areas and  maintain a livelihood by exploiting the land and the forest.   There are already signs of intensification in land degradation for expansion of food-cropping in PNG.

The minimal and even lack of  basic services  and infrastructure in rural areas is another factor driving forest owners to welcome  environmentally degrading projects. Furthermore, in areas where it is not feasible for logging (or any other economical viable activity), there is increased human migration across community domains in search of  such opportunities and basic government services  which are mostly clustered around existing economically viable settlements. This in-country migrations disproportionately intensifies land degradation in certain areas of the country.

Sir Michael rightly points out that deforestation and land degradation contribute over 90% of the PNG total emission (point 5).  The government has to address emissions from both deforestation and  subsistence land use by taking actions such as stop issuing new logging permits to loggers; put a quota on the number of used cars that can be imported from Japan; in the same vein, improve public transport.  Furthermore, the government if serious  in PNG becoming a carbon neutral society in the near future must provide alternatives to her people to wean them from the dependency on the forest. This could be achieved through several means including subsidizing of solar power packs so people stop burning wood and kerosene for fuel and light; subsides gas stoves –  to name a few. In this way, the forest will be left alone for REDD+ projects.

Finally, addressing climate change is not a battle for PNG to fight (point 9).  Climate change – the inevitable heating of the earth’s  climatic system is part of a system of  warming and cooling which has been happening since dinosaurs roamed the earth, however, the heavy reliance  on fossil fuels by humans in the race for economic development has churned out more green house gas into the atmosphere, thus accelerating the green house effect.   No government in the world including PNG, should dream of saving  the world from climate change – this is a global issue to be addressed at the global scale and the only hope is  for the countries to collectively  cut down the amount of green house gases going into the atmosphere.  It is to be lauded that PNG has stood up to the challenge of becoming carbon neutral in the near future. Climate change however, is a global issue and REDD+ is just one mitigating  action that is why, the government must be realistic and make decision to address the issue  within our cultural and socio-economic boundaries. Before we save the world we must look after our people, afterall it will be the actions of these people who will determine whether PNG becomes carbon neutral in the near future or not.

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