Trashing the oceans will come back to haunt us

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Renowned British physicist and deep thinker Stephen Hawking recently raised the prospect of aliens arriving on Earth to exploit our natural resources.

We suspect their first reaction will be, “Dude, who wrecked this place?!”

They will see the oily mess off the coast of Louisiana. Then the smoke rising from the clear-cuts in the Amazon. Then the the massive floating garbage dumps in the Pacific Ocean.

The what?

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That was our first reaction upon hearing this. Further research confirms it — there are two floating masses of plastic junk — containing everything from plastic grocery bags to traffic cones to milk jugs swirling in a vortex of ocean currents known as Subtropical Gyres.

A gyre is an odd section of ocean that has long been avoided by mariners.  There are five in the world and two in the Pacific. They have been regarded as oceanic deserts because they have few fish and gentle breezes, so they have not attracted fishermen or ocean travelers.

What they have attracted is plastic refuse, and a lot of it, because of their circling currents.

According to the website, Howstuffworks.com, the “Eastern Garbage Patch” floats between Hawaii and California and may cover twice the surface area of Texas.

But, apparently, out of sight is out of mind. There appears to be no serious national or international effort to clean these up.

So there they remain, giant revolving toilet bowls that just never flush.

But plastics in waterways are a threat, particularly in a state as closely tied to the ocean as Maine.

Whales end up trailing lost plastic fishing nets and gear. Turtles ingest floating plastic garbage bags, mistaking them for jelly fish. And seabirds are found with everything from packing popcorn to Bic lighters in their gullets.

Last week, a team from SeaWorld in California removed 100 pounds of fishing net and other gear tangled around a gray whale.

The whale was calm and cooperative during the effort, and was heard to mutter, “Thanks for getting your crap off my back.”

Like so many other environmental threats, the garbage gyre seems so large and widespread as to be hopeless.

Poor coastal cities around the globe lack recycling programs, and everything from water bottles to latex condoms end up in street-side gutters, where much of it is then washed out to sea by the next rainstorm.

Some countries have gone so far as banning plastic shopping bags or taxing their use. That probably helps, but it is unlikely to result in a global solution.

It’s difficult to picture us totally ridding our economy of plastic packaging and objects.

What’s really needed is some hard thinking about two subjects — ways to prevent plastics from getting into waterways and, second, ways to profitably retrieve this stuff, perhaps turning it into useful products.

If we don’t, we ourselves may become the aliens seeking to leave this polluted and overheated planet behind.

editorialboard@sunjournal.com

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