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Trashing the oceans

Posted 24/03/2010 by RoseS

In San Francisco at this year’s Spring Meeting of the American Chemical Society, Jean-Michel Cousteau of the Ocean Future Society reminded us that 71% of our Earth is water – mainly oceans – and that unless we look after our oceans, we will suffer the consequences. The son of the inventor of the Scuba diving apparatus and renowned undersea explorer Jacques Cousteau, Jean-Michel is passionate about improving the quality of our oceans and returning them to their original sustainable state. ‘Protect the oceans and we protect ourselves,’ he said. ‘We need to stop using the ocean as a sewer, as a trashcan.’

One of his key concerns is the amount of plastic waste that can be found everywhere in all the oceans. However, rather than just being a threat to the flora and fauna of the oceans, from birds to fish and coral, he pointed to the aggregations of plastic waste in, for example, the so-called gyres, like the north Pacific Gyre, also know as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Cousteau claims this gyre, which covers an area twice the size of Texas and contains an estimated 100m t of plastics, represents a major resource that should be tapped for plastic recycling. ‘We need to look at this as a resource not as trash,’ he said.

Much more dangerous, he believes, are the insidious effects of man-made chemicals that are also now found in the oceans, having found their way from the land through water courses and eventually into the seas. Cousteau has looked at this problem in the killer whale or orca, which can be found in all the oceans and which he describes as occupying the same position in the food chain in the ocean as humans occupy on land – right at the top: ‘Orcas are to the ocean what we are to the land,’ he said. Like humans, they can work as a team; they have a developed language with different dialects; and they eat the same fish. As a result, both orcas and humans are subject to the same potentially toxic chemicals.

Unfortunately, the plastics in the gyre may also be an additional source of these hazardous chemicals. The Japanese researchers who presented evidence of the degradation of plastics in the oceans at the 2009 Fall ACS meeting in Washington DC (C&I 2009, 17, 11), updated their work in San Francisco with more detail on the types of chemicals that are being liberated by this decomposition, including, unexpectedly, bisphenol A from decomposing polycarbonate. ‘We were quite surprised to find that polycarbonate plastic biodegrades in the environment,’ said Katsuhiko Saido from Nihon University, Chiba, Japan. ‘This finding challenges the wide public belief that hard plastics remain unchanged in the environment for decades or centuries…Marine debris in the ocean will certainly constitute a new global ocean contamination for long into the future.’

And as Cousteau said: ‘People protect what they love – if we protect our oceans, we protect ourselves.’

Neil Eisberg - Editor

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