Plastic, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and international misfires at a cure.

Author:Harse, Grant A.
  1. INTRODUCTION II. BACKGROUND A. The Current State of the Pacific Ocean 1. Plastics and Their Effect on the Marine Environment and Human Health 2. The Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument B. Current International Water Quality Conventions and National Ocean Water Quality Statutes III. PROPOSAL: INTERNATIONAL OCEANIC DEBRIS PREVENTION AND REDUCTION AGREEMENT IV. CONCLUSION V. APPENDIX A: MAP OF THE PAPAHANAUMOKUAKEA MARINE NATIONAL MONUMENT VI. APPENDIX B: MIGRATION OF PLASTICS IN THE GPGP OVER 10 YEARS I. INTRODUCTION

    Plastic and synthetic debris in the oceans have a profoundly negative effect on the lives of marine animals, plants, birds, and ultimately humans. As this form of pollution endangers the quality of ocean water, it likewise reduces the quantity of water suitable for life. (1) This has a disastrous effect on the quality and quantity of resources provided by the planet's oceans. One particularly chilling example of the effects of plastic is found in "the world's largest landfill," located in the central Pacific Ocean: the Great Pacific Garbage Patch ("GPGP"). (2)

    There are currently several international treaties and agreements that target some of the causes of the GPGP. Nonetheless, these treaties and agreements are only as strong as the laws of the member states. It is up to a member state to regulate and prosecute illegal activities within its waters, or in some instances, to prosecute acts done by vessels sailing under its flag. Recognizing that "[u]nregulated dumping of material into ocean waters endangers human health, welfare, and amenities, and the marine environment, ecological systems, and economic potentialities," (3) the United States has passed a number of statutes to prevent and remediate ocean dumping, both as a national matter and pursuant to its responsibilities under those international agreements to which it is a signatory. In spite of these bodies of law, the primary cause of the GPGP is ignored: land-based sources. To truly reverse the course of the GPGP, the world's nations need to strengthen their domestic water quality and solid waste disposal laws in order to prevent the introduction of plastic debris into national waterways, such as rivers, streams and canals. As will be discussed, it is these waterways that ultimately deliver the vast majority of plastics to our oceans.

    This article will begin with an examination of the current state of the Pacific Ocean and its pollution levels. Specifically, the causal nexus between plastic and oceanic pollutants will be discussed, with particular attention paid to the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument. (4) This article will then survey the national and international oceanic water quality laws and agreements already in place, and identify the weaknesses and strengths of each. Finally, this article will propose possible changes to the Federal Water Pollution Control Act, (5) commonly known as the Clean Water Act, and the Solid Waste Disposal Act, as amended by the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, (6) to halt the GPGP's growth and the general accumulation of plastic oceanic debris.


    1. The Current State of the Pacific Ocean

      The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is an area of marine debris concentration in the North Pacific Ocean, (7) comprised of the North Pacific Subtropical High ("PSH"), (8) which is located between California and Hawaii, and the "recirculation gyre," which is located off the coast of Japan. (9) The PSH and "recirculation gyre" are connected by the North Pacific Subtropical Convergence Zone ("STCZ"), (10) which is located along the southern edge of an area known as the North Pacific Transition Zone. (11) Within this zone, "[a] huge mountain of air, which has been heated at the equator ... descend[s] in a gentle clockwise rotation as it approaches the North Pole...." (12) These circular winds create the North Equatorial Current, the Kuroshio Current, the North Pacific Current and the California Current, (13) all "which spiral into a center where there is a slight down-welling," (14) known as the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre. (15) These currents also contribute to smaller eddies and convergence zones, including the PSH and STCZ.

      For centuries, these areas have acted as a sort of garbage disposal for the Pacific. "Anything that floats, no matter where it comes from on the north Pacific Rim or ocean, ends up [there], sometimes after drifting around the periphery for twelve years or more." (16) Historically, because these wastes were ultimately comprised of natural--rather than synthetic--substances, they would eventually break down into carbon dioxide and water due to biodegradation. (17) "Now, however, in our battle to store goods against natural deterioration, we have created a class of products that defeats even the most creative and insidious bacteria. They are plastics." (18) As a result, wastes that do not readily biodegrade now collect within the Pacific at an alarming rate.

      1. Plastics and Their Effect on the Marine Environment and Human Health

        Plastics are now virtually everywhere in our modern society. We drink out of them, eat off of them, sit on them, and even drive in them. They're durable, lightweight, cheap, and can be made into virtually anything. But it is these useful properties of plastics, which can make them so harmful when they end up in the environment. Plastics, like diamonds, are forever! (19) The term "plastic" encompasses a large group of incredibly versatile products, including approximately 20 groups of plastics. (20) Inexpensive to manufacture, plastics are also lightweight, strong, durable, corrosion-resistant, and have high thermal and electrical insulation properties. (21) Nearly every aspect of daily life involves plastics or rubber in some form. Their varied uses include clothing and footwear; food, medicine, and public health applications; packaging; vehicles; and building materials. (22) As a result, the world-wide demand for plastics was expected to have reached 308 million tons in annual use by 2010. (23)

        Unfortunately, the ubiquitous nature of plastic is having an adverse affect on the planet's oceans and life. Unlike other forms of refuse dumped at sea or in our landfills, most plastics break down very slowly; of these plastics, water-bound plastics take the longest to degrade. (24) Rather than breaking down into different chemical constituents, most plastics "break into smaller and smaller pieces, eventually becoming individual polymer molecules, which must undergo further degradation before becoming bioavailable. The eventual biodegradation of plastics in the marine environment requires an unknown amount of time," though the time needed for complete biodegradation of marine plastic is estimated to be several centuries. (25)

        The oceans are downhill and thus downstream from almost everywhere humans live. Indeed, 50% of the world's human population lives within 50 miles of the ocean. (26) As a result, it is fairly easy for plastics to make the short trip into the sea. (27) Plastics used in food and drink packaging are often left by recreational users of beaches and coastal waters. (28) The fishing industry's use of plastic "has resulted in substantial amounts of derelict fishing debris in ocean waters and on beaches." (29) Inland urban areas contribute significantly to this problem, as lightweight plastics reach the ocean via storm drainage systems that discharge into rivers and the sea. (30) Indeed, as much as 80% of marine debris is estimated to be from land-based sources. This includes storm water discharges, combined sewer overflows, littering, solid waste disposal sites and landfills, and industrial activities. (31) Conversely, deliberate disposal of waste or other matter at sea is estimated to account for less than 10% of all ocean pollution. (32) The plastic that makes its way to the ocean becomes floating debris, seafloor debris, or shoreline debris. (33)

        The implications of plastic in our oceans are numerous, but each is significantly important. Discussed below, these implications include aesthetic, environmental, human health, and commercial considerations. Aesthetically, plastic debris tends to collect and concentrate along shorelines and beaches. These beaches are often culturally significant because they are important recreational sites for the communities they serve. (34) In addition, marine and terrestrial-originating plants can accumulate along high-tide strandlines, which tend to accumulate significant quantities of plastic and other manufactured, non-destructible materials. (35) This results in concerns of economic loss, health issues, harm to the local ecosystem and its participants, (36) and expensive clean-up activities. (37)

        The environmental implications of plastic and other manufactured wastes in our oceans are alarming due to the direct affects these substances can have on marine life. In particular, plastic affects marine life by way of ingestion, entanglement, smothering, and by aiding in the introduction of invasive species.

        Over 250 species have been identified as affected by ingestion of and entanglement in plastic materials. These species include "turtles; penguins; albatross, petrels and shearwaters[,] shorebirds, skuas, gulls and auks; coastal birds other than seabirds; baleen whales, toothed whales and dolphins; earless or true seals, sea lions and fur seals; manatees and dugong; sea otters, fish, and crustaceans." (38) For example, Sea birds and marine vertebrates are known to ingest plastic pellets, bottle caps, pieces of toys, and cigarette lighters, among other plastic products. (39) Sea turtle species are likewise known to "feed on.... discarded and semi-inflated, floating plastic bags, which are mistaken for jelly fish." (40) Entanglement occurs when marine animals are ensnared in netting, ropes, and abandon monofilament lines. Ingestion of and entanglement in plastics can result in "wounds (internal...

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