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The World's Largest Garbage Dump is Not on Land

WE’RE LIVING IN A PLASTIC-WRAPPED WORLD

We all do it.  Between using plastic bags, drinking from plastic water bottles, or ripping the plastic packaging from a new gadget, we all use plastic in our daily lives.  Plastic is literally all around us, and if we don’t find a way to contain it (or even better, find an alternative to it!), our lives could soon be taken over by this mass produced product.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in 2012, plastics accounted for over 12 percent of our country’s waste.  That’s 32 million tons of plastic garbage!  In that same year, only nine percent was recovered for recycling.  So where does the rest end up?  Some plastic ends up in landfills, but the ultimate final resting place has quickly become the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

HOW DID THIS HAPPEN?

Remember that empty water bottle you unconsciously tossed at the trash can outside the mall?  Well you didn’t quite make a swish, and that bottle bounced off the rim, rolled down the parking lot, and fell into a storm drain.  From there, it found its way into a local stream, which led to a larger river, and eventually, the ocean.

This ever-growing ocean garbage dump is located in a high-pressure area between California and Japan.  Once a piece of trash makes it to this point, it gets sucked into an ocean gyre.  The circular motion formed by wind patterns and forces from the earth’s rotation pulls the debris into the center where it’s stable and calm.  It becomes trapped here, and as more garbage makes its way to the core of the gyre, an underground mountain of garbage begins to form.

The amount of trash in The Great Pacific Garbage Patch accumulates so quickly since most of its contents are not biodegradable.  The plastic simply breaks into smaller and smaller pieces, making it nearly impossible to remove.

WHAT IS IT DOING?

Exactly how big is it?  (Get ready.)  It’s almost twice the size of Texas!  As you can imagine, all of this trash leads to harmful impacts to the local marine life.  Birds get strangled in the plastic rings used to hold six packs of soda together.  Sea turtles consume plastic bags because they mistake them for jellyfish.  Algae and plankton are unable to absorb sunlight because the thick plastic barrier is blocking them.  And this is just the beginning…

WHAT IS BEING DONE?

Fortunately, many places are doing their part to help prevent any further growth of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.  Hawaii recently became the first state to officially ban the use of plastic bags at checkout counters.  Other cities such as Malibu, Westport, and Portland have taken similar action.  Some cities have also implemented a small charge on paper bags, usually between five and twenty cents.

Additional places are taking further action.  The residents of Concord, Massachusettsrecently voted to ban the sale of all bottled water.  Several colleges including Winona State University, Minnesota State University, and the University of Portland are also making an impact by banning the sale of plastic bottles on campus.

WHAT CAN YOU DO?

If you’re looking to make an impact yourself, breaking a few common habits will be a great place to start.

  • Recycle, recycle, recycle! Make sure every piece of recyclable plastic you use ends up in the correct bin.
  • Spend a couple bucks and purchase reusable shopping bags instead of relying on more plastic bags for your groceries.
  • Opt for groceries packaged in glass or cardboard instead of plastic.
  • Go green and use reusable plastic containers. Water bottles, coffee mugs, and storage containers can all be washed and used again.
  • Ensure all non-recyclable trash ends up in the garbage can, and not on the street. If you see a stray piece of trash, be kind and pick it up.

Your small contribution could end up saving a life…or hundreds of lives.  Who knows how much larger this monument will become.  But if it continues on the path it’s currently on, the world as we know it will come to a screeching halt. We only have one Earth.  Shouldn’t we make it last?

Content Discussion

Ed Dodge's picture
Ed Dodge on May 31, 2014

One of the best things we can do beyond recycling is to convert the waste into new commodities.  Polyethelyne platics (PET) are worth their weight as fuel.  Roughly speaking, a ton of PET is equivalent to a barrel of oil.  PET can be converted into synthetic diesel or synthetic natural gas using the same proven technologies that convert coal into those products.

We have the technological means already available to effectively ban landfills and convert all of our waste into useful products.  Unfortunately, short term economic thinking encourages us to use virgin resources and dump “waste” into landfills.  We need policy measures that encourage waste conversion.  Forward thinking municipalities such as Los Angeles are already embracing Conversion as the fourth leg beyond Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.  We need such action to acheive true Zero Waste.

On a separate note, part of the problem on the oceans is that ships dump their garbage at sea as standard practice.  Even environmentally friendly research vessels do it.  We need to address international maritime practices in our efforts to clean up the oceans.

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on June 1, 2014

Thanks for the info! We need to modernize the recycling process such that everything that goes into the trash truck gets recycled.

Making sure that billions of people will recycle is a lot more cumbersome than doing it the right way which is plasma gasification (powered by clean energy). The energy saved by not having to have everyone recycle individually could then be used on the ocean cleanup measure. We should mandate an international ocean cleanup anyways!

Sarah Battaglia's picture
Sarah Battaglia on June 2, 2014

Robert- you’re right. Our current recycling process could use a bit of a makeover. We could also use a new program that encourages more people to recycle. Maybe some sort of incentive program.

Edward- you make a great point. Converting our waste into something useful would certainly cut back on the amount of debris that ends up in our waterways. And I agree- more municipalities should be working toward becoming more like LA and its conversion process. But at least someone got the ball rolling…

Thanks for commenting!

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on June 2, 2014

Edward, I’ve been working with an environmental permitting services company here in Los Angeles on software which does mass balance analyses on the effectiveness of recycling various waste streams.

Much progress has been made in breaking down waste into what’s recyclable and what’s convertible to energy, with the goal of sending as little to the landfill as possible. The main challenges fall into two general categories:

1) Economics make it prohibitively expensive to recycle many streams to the level of purity demanded by manufacturing and agriculture. Sometimes the purity is perceived – for example, it’s extremely difficult to convince farmers that treated organic waste makes excellent fertilizer, even after providing a breakdown showing toxics below levels of commercial fertilizer. They don’t want anything to do with it.

2) With the recent emphasis given to reducing carbon, it’s more environmentally sound to send some inert materials such as glass cullet, ceramics, and specific types of non-biodegradable waste to the landfill – it uses less energy to remanufacture them from raw materials.

Where we really need to direct our focus is encouraging low-waste packaging (now that L.A. has a tax on plastic grocery bags, a hefty tax on “disposable” PET water bottles should come next) and try to prevent perfectly reuseable packaging from ever ending up in the waste bin at all.

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