Waste Not, Want Not

Sep 16, 2012

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Sarah Nicols

My husband sent me an article the other day with the headline "Plastic-Eating Fungi Found in the Amazon May Solve World’s Waste Problem". Immediately, my thoughts turned to a B-movie type blob fungus oozing down the street, devouring giant plastic garbage cans and children's toys. However, as I followed the links from the website to the actual published article, I found that this fungus actually has the potential to help manage one of the major contributors to our trash problem--polyurethane.

Have you ever heard of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch? This is a huge, I mean HUGE, area of waste and litter that has accumulated in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. It has gathered there because the currents and tides in the North Pacific are circular and the garbage gets caught in a type of vortex. The garbage has collected in the "Convergence Zone" just north of the Hawaiian Islands, making a huge mass of plastic waste, chemical sludge, and other debris.

While some people describe it as an "Island of Trash", it isn't quite that simple. If it were one solid mass, it would be mush easier to clean up. However, it is actually made of many smaller "islands" of trash that are constantly shifting and moving with the currents. About 80% of the garbage comes from land sources, and about 10% comes from marine sources.

What does this mean for the wildlife in the Pacific Ocean? Well, it means that many more animals have been suffering and dying because of our waste. Sea turtles and other large marine animals can become entangled in the debris or eat plastic bags, mistaking them for jellyfish. Both situations can cause the animals to drown or suffocate and die. Smaller animals can eat small plastics and feed them to their young. The plastic can rupture organs or even cause the animals to die of starvation.

So, how do we fix this?

It's actually quite difficult. A cleanup operation would be astoundingly expensive, and would likely harm many animals in the process. The best thing to do right now is to educate the public about proper waste disposal. Don't litter! Here in Los Angeles, all the storm drains and manhole covers say "No dumping...Drains to ocean". It's a nice, friendly reminder to us to remember that all of our trash and waste has to go somewhere!

This discovery of the plastic eating fungus has the potential to help get rid of  at least some of the plastic debris that is clogging up our oceans and killing our marine life. While this may put a dent in the problem, we cannot pin all of our hopes on to this one organism. The solution to a problem like this is often to stop the source of the problem at the beginning. Recycle! Reduce! Reuse! Going back to the lessons we learn in elementary school, we can hopefully make this planet a little cleaner and greener than it is today.

Sources:

http://www.mnn.com/earth-matters/translating-uncle-sam/stories/what-is-the-great-pacific-ocean-garbage-patch

http://aem.asm.org/content/77/17/6076.full

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