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and fishing gear, stuff washed out of rivers,
all the junk that is thrown away all over
the world in the most haphazard way, that
eventually find its way out into waterways
and out into the ocean. It continues to
come from all corners."
So vast is the scale of all this marine
pollution that it is now well and truly
beyond the stage where it might be
"A few things can be done," Dr Safina
said, "and the most effective thing would
be to create a new generation of materials
whose lifetime is truly scaled to their
useable time. There's no reason why we
should buy yoghurt, which has a two-
week shelf life and yet comes packaged
in eternal material.
"On the other hand I would not want to
be in a fibreglass boat that was dissolving
"There are some uses for plastic which
demand a very short lifetime and we
need to find new ways of creating those
materials. The other effective thing would
be to createbetterincentivesfor re-using,
recycling, re-purposing it.
Glimpsed from the air the breathtaking beauty of Alaska's wild sub-Arctic coast provides a
profoundly awe-inspiring sense of a time before time. The deeply indented shoreline with its
dramatic backdrop of dark forests and stark, snow-capped mountains appears to be pure and
uncorrupted, perhaps the last place on the planet where the word pristine can be applied with
precision. But the view from sea level is disturbingly different.
There, untold tons of discarded plastic debris is now making an unholy mess of this icy
paradise. Dr Carl Safina, President of the New York-based Blue Ocean Institute joined The
Gyre Expedition, a group of scientists and artists on a thousand mile voyage along the Alaskan
Peninsula to the shores of the Katmai National Park. Their aim was to focus public attention on
the sea-borne litter that's blighting one of the world's last wild places. Bruce Stannard reports.
The North Pacific Gyre, a vast
clockwise swirling vortex covering
some 20 million square kilometres
is said to be the biggest ecosystem on
earth, a vital source of food and habitat for
a huge array of marine life, from humpback
whales to microscopic phytoplankton. It is
also home to extraordinary concentrations
of pelagic plastics and chemical sludge, a
toxic broth that amounts to the greatest
collection of man-made marine debris the
world has ever known.
Since it was first reported in scientific
literature in 1988, the gyre has grown
at an exponential rate, distributing and
aggregating trash right across the North
Pacific. Flip-flop rubber thongs discarded
in Thailand find their way to Hawaiian
beaches while plastic bottles tossed
overboard in Japan are eventually washed
ashore in remote Alaskan coves.
The world is now literally connected by
litter. And yet somehow we remain blithely
detached from the problem that we have
created. The Gyre Expedition set out to
help change that by bringing a group of
scientists and artists to Alaska, allowing
them to experience the problem first-hand
and encouraging them to come up with
their own creative responses. Carl Safina
was among them.
Dr Safina, a distinguished author and a
renowned authority on the oceans, already
had a deep appreciation of the global scale
of the problem. He has seen marine debris
all over the world.
"Just about everywhere you go these
days," he said, "you see garbage. The
thing about plastic garbage is that it
accumulates faster than it goes away.
Alaska is no exception although on much
of the shoreline there is too much energy
for things to collect. Where it does collect
there is plenty of it. That's also true in my
own backyard here on Long Island."
I asked him if the Japanese tsunami
had added significantly to the sum total
of marine debris in Alaskan waters.
herring," he said. "Although there will
probably be a lot more of it coming ashore
in Alaska in a year or so, we actually saw
very little and what we did see pales in
comparison with the constant flow of trash
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