Feb 242010
Authors: Wade McManus

Our society has fallen into to a pattern of excessive-consumption, largely since the mid-20th century.

We developed a national economy that operates off production and consumption. Its ultimate result: billions of pounds of waste. The consequences of our over consumption is not in clear sight, often hidden by proximity or neglectful reporting.

Well, the problem growing in the Pacific Ocean has reached such a magnitude that it should no longer be ignored.

In the circular currents of the Pacific Ocean, billions of pounds plastic have formed a massive patch that has been dubbed the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch.” Actually, there are two patches –– an eastern and western patch off each side of Hawaii.

Estimated sizes of the patch vary from two times the size of Texas to two times the size of the continental United States. But even the smaller of the two is a tragedy. The effects are widespread, potentially affecting the entire globe.

Greenpeace estimates there are 267 species affected, including seabirds, turtles and other marine life. The U.N. Environmental Program estimates more than a million animals die annually due to mistakenly eating plastic.

Even worse for us, traces of the plastic gathering in the Pacific has been found in fish and other animals. In return, traces of that same plastic has been found in people after ingestion.

Who would have thought? You could now be consuming remnants of a plastic Twinkie wrapper your grandma gave to your mom for desert 50 years ago.

It may seem the problem has an easy solution — just clean it up. But the California Coastal Commission in San Francisco says that feat is impossible.

Problems include the massive price tag and the lack of international, collective responsibility and that an attempt to clean the mess would be devastating to marine ecosystems, potentially spanning much of the world. A clean-up operation to this magnitude would interrupt crucial natural balances and processes.

What can we do then?

Well, nothing. It’s hopeless. We are stuck in our consuming habits, and it’s futile to think any differently. But a naïve optimists like myself would still like to give it a try.

Undoubtedly the way we dispose of waste has played a significant role in the growth of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. One way or another, our plastic waste finds itself in rivers and streams, and ultimately into our oceans.

It’s estimated that 80 percent of the trash in the garbage patch originated from land-based disposal and has meandered to beaches and oceans around the world. The other 20 percent is from private and commercial ships throwing trash overboard.

Clearly, there is a flaw in how we dispose of our trash in America and around the globe.

Recycling and better disposal practices alone will not decontaminate our oceans. Ultimately, we have to heavily reduce our consumption.

The problem is already there and it’s not going to disappear. But we can choose to limit the growth of the garbage patch, along with its potential consequences.

This, however, would require a paradigm shift at all levels of society — from the individual up. This logic applies to more than just plastics floating in our oceans.

And, of course, we cannot continue on while eliminating our consumption habits completely.

New ideas and new technology may prove to go a long way. Biodegradable products and alternative energies can compliment conscientious consuming habits to work against the poisoning of our planet.

There are pressing environmental issues that we now face. Many of us may never experience the consequences of these, but don’t be so quick to dismiss them for that reason.

Make a personal effort to curb your consumption habits, to whatever extent you can afford.

Wade McManus is a senior political science major. His column appears Thursdays in the Collegian. Letters and feedback can be sent to letters@collegian.com.

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