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Plastic as far as you can see and can’t

Plastic barrel encrusted with sea lifeHere’s an interesting exception among the photos accompanying a recent NYT article about the mass of plastic detritus, twice the size of Texas, floating in the Pacific Ocean. This barely buoyant plastic barrel, demonstrates why plastic does not qualify as flotsam.

As sea creatures inhabit this barrel, it becomes encrusted and weighted down causing it to slowly sink. After enough time at great depths the ballast of barnacles is eventually sloughed off, prompting the barrel to rise again to the surface. The scientists call it a “yo-yo effect” which describes only the motion. The living organisms cycle and decay, but the plastic goes nowhere but up and down, all the while leaching its toxins into multiple depths of the food chain. The submerged plastic meanwhile hinders our measure of the inaptly named flotsam. The point being that the collection of garbage which we observe on the surface, whirling in this giant Pacific gyre, is only the proverbial tip of a plastic burg.

It’s worth noting that the article which the NYT picked up, came from a reporter funded by SPOT.US, an innovative journalism collective whose investigation projects are financed by the readers. If novice reporter Lindsay Hoshaw hadn’t made the pitch, and spot.us readers hadn’t advanced the budget, the NYT might never have gotten the story.

The great Pacific gyre, located between Hawaii and the continental US, is estimated to be only one of five such garbage patches in the world. It was encountered only 12 years ago by someone returning from a round-the-world race. We all know plastic can evade airport security metal detectors, who knows, it probably flies under the radar. Plastic surpasses its creators’ hyperbole. Besides having a durability to rival radioactivity, plastic has the power of attraction to morph into masses the size of two lone star states, in 3-D, and cloak itself as successfully as Osama bin Laden.

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