By Laura Heller, Minister of Word and Service and Creation Care Ministry Coordinator for the Delaware-Maryland Synod.
O Lord, how manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures. 25 Yonder is the sea, great and wide, creeping things innumerable are there, living things both small and great. (Psalm 104: 24,25)
On our planet earth, there is a vastness of creation. The diversity of life is one of the most striking aspects of our planet. It is estimated that there are 8.7 million species on earth. In a 2011 study it was suggested that some 86% of existing species on Earth and 91% of species in the ocean still await description, that is, they have not even been discovered.
Recent research is confirming that we are all interconnected, and that is by God’s design. I remember in high school science class we used to talk about the food chain; now we know it is actually an interconnected web of life. And each ocean has its own name, but we now understand that it is actually a world ocean so that things happening on one side of the world impact the waters on the other side of the world.
Unfortunately, trash has become a big problem in the ocean. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a collection of marine debris in the North Pacific Ocean. Marine debris is litter, including land based trash that ends up in oceans, seas, and other large bodies of water.
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, also known as the Pacific trash vortex, spans waters from the West Coast of North America to Japan. These areas of spinning debris are linked together by the North Pacific Subtropical Convergence Zone, located a few hundred kilometers north of Hawaii. This convergence zone is where warm water from the South Pacific meets up with cooler water from the Arctic. The zone acts like a highway that moves debris from one patch to another.
The entire Great Pacific Garbage Patch is bounded by the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre. An ocean gyre is a system of circular ocean currents formed by the Earth’s wind patterns and the forces created by the rotation of the planet. To illustrate, a plastic water bottle discarded off the coast of California can travel south toward Mexico cross the vast Pacific towards Japan, and end up in the vortex of the garbage patch.
The amount of debris in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch accumulates because much of it is not biodegradable. Many plastics do not wear down; they simply break into tinier and tinier pieces known as microplastics. Researchers have collected up to 750,000 bits of microplastic in a single square kilometer of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Most of this debris comes from plastic bags, bottle caps, plastic water bottles, and Styrofoam cups.
These microplastics make up 94 percent of an estimated 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic in the patch. But that only amounts to eight percent of the total tonnage. As it turns out, of the 79,000 metric tons of plastic in the patch, most of it is abandoned fishing gear. Microplastics can’t always be seen by the naked eye, but simply make the water look like a cloudy soup. This soup is intermixed with larger items, such as fishing gear and shoes. The seafloor beneath the Great Pacific Garbage Patch may also be an underwater trash heap. Researchers recently discovered that about 70% of marine debris actually sinks to the bottom of the ocean.
Marine debris can be very harmful to marine life in the gyre. For instance, loggerhead sea turtles often mistake plastic bags for jellies, their favorite food. Albatrosses mistake plastic resin pellets for fish eggs and feed them to chicks, which then die of starvation or ruptured organs.
Seals and other marine mammals are especially at risk. They can get entangled in abandoned plastic fishing nets, which are being discarded more often because of their low cost. Seals and other mammals often drown in these forgotten nets—a phenomenon known as “ghost fishing.”
Marine debris can also disturb marine food webs in the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre. As microplastics and other trash collect on or near the surface of the ocean, they block sunlight from reaching plankton and algae below. Algae and plankton are the most common autotrophs, or producers, in the marine food web. Autotrophs are organisms that can produce their own nutrients from oxygen, carbon, and sunlight.
If algae and plankton communities are threatened, the entire food web may change. Animals that feed on algae and plankton, such as fish and turtles, will have less food. If populations of those animals decrease, there will be less food for apex predators such as tuna, sharks and whales. Eventually, seafood becomes less available and more expensive for people.
These dangers are compounded by the fact that plastics both leach out and absorb harmful pollutants. As plastics break down through photodegradation, they leach out colorants and chemicals, such as bisphenol A (BPA), that have been linked to environmental and health problems. Conversely, plastics can also absorb pollutants, such as PCBs, from the seawater. These chemicals can then enter the food chain when consumed by marine life.
Cleaning up marine debris is not easy. Many microplastics are the same size as small sea animals, so nets designed to scoop up trash would catch these creatures as well. Even if we could design nets that would just catch garbage, the size of the oceans makes this job far too time-consuming to consider. The National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration’s Marine Debris Program has estimated that it would take 67 ships one year to clean up less than one percent of the North Pacific Ocean.
Limiting or eliminating our use of disposable plastics and increasing our use of biodegradable resources will be the best way to prevent the growth of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
There has been a shift from linear thinking to systems thinking and a holistic worldview. The world is an integrated whole rather than a dissociated collection of parts. This is an ecological view: deep ecological awareness that recognizes the fundamental interdependence of all living creatures and the fact that, as individuals and societies, we are all embedded in, and ultimately dependent on God’s creation.
In loving and obeying God and caring for our neighbor, we need to expand our horizons to consider the needs of all living things in our planet. All that God created and called good.