Garbage in Paradise

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Tight Trash

by Kathy Kattenburg

In West Java, Indonesia, not far from Jakarta, there is a river of garbage. Literally.

The Citarum River used to be a place of unspoiled natural beauty. Women came down to its banks to wash clothes while children swam in the unpolluted water. Fish abounded in the river, providing food for both seabirds and humans.

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Now, a thick carpet of refuse, industrial debris, and human waste covers the river so completely that the water can’t be seen, and impoverished local residents go out in small fishing boats to scavenge for bottles, cans, and other items they can sell to make a meager living.

Nine million people live along the river’s banks, which are lined with hundreds of factories. Chemicals used to treat products made in the factories, along with all the trash produced by the people who work in them, pour into the Citarum. There are no environmental regulations or garbage collection services.

In the Philippines, 10,000 people make about $3 a day picking through a towering mountain of garbage outside Manila. They are helping to put food on the table for their families, and because they recycle about a quarter of the total amount of garbage at the dump, they are also performing a vital community service. But of course, they don’t have the benefits – such as collective bargaining rights and occupational safety regulations — that come with societal recognition that what they are doing is valuable. Although $3 goes a lot farther in Manila than it would in New York City or Toronto or London, it is still a pittance, and garbage mountain workers are exposed to significant health risks, such as respiratory diseases like asthma and tuberculosis, as well as tetanus infection and carcinogens.

The world’s largest garbage dump, however, isn’t even on land. It’s in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The Pacific Garbage Patch, also called the Eastern Garbage Patch, is a vast floating vortex of trash that travels round and round inside the North Pacific Gyre. A gyre is created by sea currents flowing in different directions that have the effect of creating a circle in the ocean. The North Pacific Gyre is thousands of miles wide, and inside it, every kind of human-generated garbage imaginable circulates: plastic bottles, bags, and containers of various kinds, fishing nets, food, clothes, marine debris – everything that people make, use, and then throw away. However, about 80% of what’s there is plastic. According to one source, the “patch” is twice the size of Texas. Another source estimates the size at one and a half times larger than the entire United States) and weighs over 3.5 million tons.

Contrary to what some people think, you cannot walk on the PGB. It is more like a thick soup, or stew, of plastic and other refuse. For several reasons – its sheer size and diffuseness, the fact that much of it is in the form of small pieces and particles (plastic does not biodegrade; it gets brittle in the sun and then breaks up into pieces, which further deteriorate into smaller particles), and the never-ending flow of new garbage generated by humans — scientists say the patch can never be cleaned up.

The consequences of this ocean pollution for both marine and human life are almost incalculable. Most immediately and directly, fish and ocean mammals such as whales ingest plastic particles and other pollutants, either directly or by eating plants that are coated with particulate matter. The debris that sinks to the ocean floor may have as damaging effects that are as yet unknown. Sea birds and other land animals often eat plastic, thinking it’s food. And if the foreign objects and toxins don’t kill them, it goes up the food chain and eventually reaches humans. This is a huge problem with fish, especially, since so much of the world’s population relies on fish and other sea life as a food source.

Although cleaning up what’s already in the ocean is out of the question, we can stop adding to it. In the United States, large chain grocery stores have for years been asking their customers, “Paper or plastic?” at the checkout counter, and encouraging shoppers to cut down on the use of plastic in other ways, such as selling cloth bags. Now, a growing number of towns and cities worldwide are legislating outright bans on the use of plastic bags. In the United States, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Oakland (also in California) have passed laws against the use of plastic bags in large grocery stores and pharmacies.

On the East Coast, Westport, Connecticut, became that state’s first town to ban plastic bags in most shopping venues. The New York Times reports that, as of March 2009, “…retailers who use plastic bags, with some exceptions including those for produce, will be fined $150.” On May 1, 2007, Modbury in Devon, England, became the first town to ban plastic bags. At the beginning of this year, China passed a law requiring shoppers to be charged for plastic bags and banned them outright on public transportation, in airports, and in “scenic locations.”

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