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04212013-1Since 1970, Earth Day has been celebrated each year on April 22.  Founded by United States Senator Gaylor Nelson, what began as a teach-in focused on environmental issues has become an international celebration of the beauty and fragility of Earth, a call to protect Earth’s diverse microcosms, an examination of our individual and collective impact on Earth, and a challenge to live, individually and collectively, more responsibly.

04212013-2The world’s five oceans—the Pacific, Atlantic, Indian, Southern, and Arctic oceans—play a vital role in life on Earth. They contain 97% of Earth’s water supply and cover 71% of Earth’s surface. Because water is essential for life, and because it encompasses so much of our planet, it is critical that the oceans remain healthy. Oceans are a fundamental link in the food chain for animals, plants, and people. They also play an important part in global weather patterns.  

04212013-3Oceans teem with life: sharks, turtles, and whales, coral, seaweed, anemone, and plankton, jellyfish, seahorse, and, of course, fish. Thousands of species of fish live throughout the world’s oceans, from Clown Fish (think Nemo) in the coral reefs to Anglerfish and yet undiscovered species in the depths. The oceans are also home to garbage. What? Yes, garbage. Several ‘garbage patches’ contaminate our oceans with ‘marine debris’. Celebrate this Earth Day by learning about marine debris and ocean garbage patches and how they threaten the balance of the marine ecosystem and the greater web of life.

What is ‘Marine Debris’?—

04212013-4The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) defines ‘marine debris’ as “any persistent solid material that is manufactured or processed and directly or indirectly, intentionally or unintentionally, disposed of or abandoned into the marine environment or the Great Lakes.” In other words, any non-biodegradable, man-made material that ends up for any reason in an ocean, a sea, or the Great Lakes. There are several types of marine debris. There are also several common sources.

Garbage Patches and Gyres—

04212013-10What is a ‘garbage patch’?  Where are garbage patches? What does it have to do with marine debris? For an old-fashioned Q and A on garbage patches, revisit NOAA’s site. Why not simply clean up the garbage patches? Add to these reasons the issue of accountability.  Who is responsible for cleaning up the garbage floating in the oceans or resting on the ocean floor? Because the debris travels on currents without passports, it is difficult for countries to agree how to fund a massive, global clean-up of the oceans.

04212013-9The largest and most famous, or infamous, garbage patch is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. It was first discovered in 1997 by Captain Charles Moore. Watch Good Morning America to hear from Captain Moore about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, to learn how the Patch came to be, and why we should care. Infohow.org shares two infographics that explain the size, location, and impact of the Great Garbage Patch: The Great Garbage Patch, and Through the Gyre

04212013-5There are actually several large ocean garbage patches. Each corresponds to a gyre, or circular current. Play the time-lapse video to see how currents transport marine debris and where garbage accumulates in the oceans. Researchers are hoping this information will help target clean-up efforts, and allow them to more accurately assess the amount of garbage in our oceans. Scroll down further to read new research questions and 5gyres.org research projects, and to see the trawls used to collect marine samples.

What is the Problem?—

04212013-8What would our daily life be like without plastic? Plastic has become ubiquitous. Look around you now and list the plastics within sight. Plastic seems like such a positive invention:  permanent and lightweight. It can be reused…or not. The problem is where and how much plastic is disposed. Plastics are an increasing and an important part of our garbage cycle. A portion of the cycle is man-made: consumption and manufacturing. The other half of the cycle involves natural forces and the food web. Unfortunately, no creature in the food web has an appetite for plastic and plastic has no nutritional value. Read about each of the five segments of the cycle; click on the tab at the bottom of each page to advance.

04212013-6At issue is not simply that garbage in the ocean looks ugly. Ocean debris threatens marine life.  Visit the video library at Captain Moore’s Algalita Marine Research Institute and select Synthetic Sea. This ten-minute video explains simply but in detail why and how plastic harms fish and birds. It is not yet known what health affects there are on humans who eat fish living in a plastic infested ocean. 

04212013-12Return to NOAA to investigate the environmental and economic impacts of marine debris. Clearly, countries and states with ocean-front property are invested in protecting their shorelines as tourist destinations. Would you rather snorkel over coral reefs full of colorful fish, swim with dolphin, and walk along a sandy beach…or swim in water littered with plastic bits and walk among beached garbage?  Despite the aesthetic, environment, and economic value in clean beaches, shorefront clean-up efforts can be costly.

What is the Solution?—

04212013-11Because all life on Earth is interdependent, and because this is a man-made problem, it is an issue for us all to solve. The damage marine garbage causes to marine life is obvious, but the threat to flora, fauna, and humans is also real and chronic. What can you do? One easy way to begin is to take the plastic promise.

04212013-13A person can only care about an issue if s/he is educated about it. Do your friends know what our garbage is doing to marine life? Celebrate Earth Day by spreading the word so that others will know about—and perhaps care about— preserving our oceans. Like, pin, or tweet Plastics Breakdown, an infographic that shows the affects of plastics on our oceans.  After all, the oceans’ diverse life is so much more beautiful, healthy, and valuable than plastic soup.