Transcript: Thom Hartmann asks Stiv Wilson, will our oceans survive? 13 May '10.
Thom Hartmann: Will our oceans survive? Are we doomed? The oceans are the principle source of oxygen for this planet. Stiv Wilson is with us. He’s with the five, is it pronounced Gyres, Stiv?
Stiv Wilson: Depends on where you are.
Thom Hartmann: Or Gyres?
Stiv Wilson: Gyre or Gyre will work.
Thom Hartmann: Which is English and which is American English?
Stiv Wilson: American is Gyre for sure.
Thom Hartmann: Gyre. Okay, Gyres, five, the digit 5, 5Gyres.org is the website. So what are the five gyres?
Stiv Wilson: Basically there’s five major subtropical oceanic gyres in the world. North/South Pacific, North/South Atlantic, and Indian Ocean.
Thom Hartmann: And these are called gyres because they rotate? Rotating currents?
Stiv Wilson: Well yes, exactly. Basically you have two opposing trade winds that form these things and because of the Earth's’ Coriolis effect those wind patterns bend and so you create a swirling vortex.
Thom Hartmann: Right. The Coriolis being the result of the spinning of the Earth, the, right?
Stiv Wilson: Yes, exactly.
Thom Hartmann: So, to get right to it, everybody’s heard or many people have heard about this giant garbage patch in the Pacific Ocean off the, I guess off the Pacific northwest or if you were to draw a straight line from the Pacific Northwest to Central China or North China or something like that. But most people don’t realize that there are multiple floating garbage patches?
Stiv Wilson: Exactly. That’s sort of the, that is, the mission of the 5gyres project is to take expeditions to all major gyres to document plastic pollution. And we’ve been to three of them so far. North Pacific, North Atlantic and the Indian Ocean.
Thom Hartmann: And what have you found?
Stiv Wilson: Plastic. And lots of it. We did 37 trials on the expedition I was. A trial is basically the way we collect our data. Over about 3000 miles between US Virgin Islands, Bermuda, and the Azores. And every time positive for plastic fragments. And then you come across what are called garbage patches but there’s a lot of mythology around what a garbage patch actually is.
Thom Hartmann: Okay. So, we’re talking with Stiv Wilson with the 5gyres project. 5gyres.org is their website. What is the mythology about the garbage patches and what is the reality, Stiv?
Stiv Wilson: Well the media is really keen on using the state of Texas to describe the size and what these look like. And I think ultimately…
Thom Hartmann: You mean they’re as big as the state of Texas?
Stiv Wilson: Yeah, but they move. They’re diffuse and the garbage contained within them swirls and circulates, not only because of the effects of the gyre but also weather and wind patterns and…
Thom Hartmann: So are they more like an, we would imagine an amoeba or even more like I guess in some ways this oil slick with tentacles and arms that go out as a result of the currents?
Stiv Wilson: Yeah exactly. It’s kind of, it kind of behaves like lava in a lava lamp.
Thom Hartmann: Aha. Very interesting. Interesting metaphor. So how dangerous are these things, how long has it taken to get them where they are, and what’s it going to take to get rid of them?
Stiv Wilson: I think, that’s a difficult question to answer as far as the solution is concerned. For one, they’re extremely diffuse and they’re hard to find. They’re not like an island where you can go tie a boat up to and there’s a lot of funding coming from the American Chemistry Council right now to sort of say that we can recycle our way out of this or we can go take tankers out there and clean it up. Well that would be like sifting the Sahara Desert 100 thousand times over. It’s just not possible. And frankly it’s a fool’s errand if you ask me. I’ve been there, I’ve seen it, and it’s everywhere and nowhere at the same time.
Thom Hartmann: Isn’t there a natural process that will decompose this although it, many of these plastics will take thousands of years rather than dozens?
Stiv Wilson: Yeah. I mean over time, I mean we’ve looked at 500 thousand years to a thousand years and nobody really knows. But the rate at which it’s entering the ocean is much faster than any rate that it’s going to naturally decompose.
Thom Hartmann: And what’s it, I know that ships at sea have been notorious for throwing their garbage overboard for years and years and it’s a practice that has been legally stopped but practically, probably not at all except probably with cruise ships. What are the primary sources of all this plastic and waste that are forming, that are getting caught by these five gyres, these giant swirling masses of garbage in the ocean?
Stiv Wilson: The number one culprit I would say is litter.
Thom Hartmann: You mean like on the highway?
Stiv Wilson: Yeah, on the highway. If you see a bottle cap in the street next to your sewer grate, on the west coast it’s going to end up in the North Pacific Gyre eventually the next time it rains. And when you talk about…
Thom Hartmann: And in Chicago it’ll end up in the Mississippi and ultimately in the Gulf of Mexico.
Stiv Wilson: Yeah and then into the Atlantic. And ultimately you know you’re looking at a population of 7 billion people world wide who are addicted to single use plastics. And you know they’re using something once that is meant to last forever. And best estimates we have right now is 3% of plastics worldwide are recycled.
Thom Hartmann: Wow.
Stiv Wilson: So 97% of this stuff is either going into a landfill or going into an ocean.
Thom Hartmann: We’re talking to Stiv Wilson, the 5Gyres project, 5Gyres.org. Stiv, we have just a minute left. I have seen, we’re starting to get like plastic peanuts made from rice, I understand that there are plastic bottles and containers made from corn plastic that will degrade over a period of years rather than decades or centuries. Is that the solution? Or is a ban on plastics? I mean what, is there a relatively straightforward small number of steps that we can take to solve this or is this just totally out of control?
Stiv Wilson: I think it’s pretty out of control right now. I mean the rate that we’re using it is huge. I mean it’s everywhere. It’s everywhere on your grocery store shelf and it’s everywhere in your cabinet. And there is some promise with some biodegradable technologies coming online. Plasma incineration which is burning plastic, or any matter for that matter, at such a high heat that it’s reducing everything to its elemental inner form. And that has some promise.
Thom Hartmann: Yeah, but that’s very energy intensive too.
Stiv Wilson: Yeah it is energy intensive.
Thom Hartmann: So then you’re burning hydro carbons that generate the… it’s a tough one. Okay, Stiv Wilson, you can actually read all about it including solutions at 5, the digit 5, 5Gyres.org. Stiv thanks for dropping by.
Stiv Wilson: Yeah thanks Thom for having me.
Thom Hartmann: Great to have you here.
Transcribed by Suzanne Roberts, Portland Psychology Clinic.