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Epic ocean-cleanup fail, seafood danger … and why we need better trash

beachtrash.jpgI've been waiting to read responses to the article in Spiegel Online last week on the resounding failure of decades of international efforts to clean up oceans. The continued use of the oceans as garbage dumps is not only an environmental disaster, it's bad for our health. But aside from the article, I haven't seen coverage.

A classified German government document obtained by Spiegel reportedly describes the abysmal condition of Europe's oceans (each year 20,000 tons of waste finds its way into the North Sea alone). Much of that is plastic, and as the Spiegel article points out, researchers are especially concerned about the negative effects of ingesting plastic on marine animals - and in turn on the humans who eat those animals.

...according to Richard Thompson, a marine biologist at the University of Plymouth in Great Britain, pieces of plastic can moonlight as poison traps in which insoluble cancer-causing substances, such as DDT, embed themselves. In fact, the most recent study puts the concentration of such poisons on these bits of plastic as being a million times higher than normal.

The government paper proposes some solutions. Among them:

  • Distributing strong garbage sacks to hundreds of fishermen so they can serve as North Sea garbage collectors,
  • Promoting recycling systems aboard ships, and
  • Higher penalties.

Still, with the terrible track record, I can't help but think that strategy is doomed.

Maybe a solution would be to create better trash.

I got the idea from reading the intro to the theme issue Plastics, the environment and human health in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, published in July 2009 (registration may be required). Thompson is one of the package's editors and contributes an overview of what's known about plastics and health (plusses and minuses), some solutions and a call to action:

There is some urgency, as the quantity of plastics produced in the first 10 years of the current century is likely to approach the quantity produced in the entire century that preceded.

Photo by NOAA's National Ocean Service

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