Our Singularity Future: Humanity’s Trash Piling Up In Great Lakes

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[Source: Wikipedia]

[Source: Wikipedia]

Mass-producing, mass-consuming humanity continues to leave its lasting mark on planet Earth.

You’ve probably heard about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, an “island” of floating debris in the north Pacific twice the size of Texas. While it isn’t always as large, and its debris is diffuse enough as to be nothing resembling an actual island, the Great Patch is still a great problem. And if one has formed in the middle of the ocean, might we expect other like patches to form closer to the coastlines from which the waste is dumped in the first place?

They found one. Call it the Great Great Lakes Garbage Patch.

In an expedition led by Lorena M. Rios Mendoza from the University of Wisconsin, Superior, researchers collected trash and fish from the Great Lakes. They found that, like the Pacific patch, the garbage in the Great Lakes is made up of huge amounts of tiny pieces of plastic. Of all the pieces collected by the research team in Lake Erie, 85 percent were smaller than two-tenths of an inch and a large proportion of those were microscopic. These small pieces often go unnoticed by passing humans, but not by the sea life that confuse them for food – an occurrence sadly confirmed by the large amounts of plastic particles found when the team dissected fish. The group counted between 1,500 and 1.7 million of these microscopic particles per square mile.

Researchers found microscopic plastic particles in the bellies of fish. It's possible chemicals could be spread through the food chain. [Source: Wikipedia]

Researchers found microscopic plastic particles in the bellies of fish. It's possible chemicals could be spread through the food chain. [Source: Wikipedia]

The findings were presented at the American Chemical Society meeting in New Orleans earlier this month.

Rios says the fish can be harmed either by eating the debris or by absorbing the chemicals that leach off the material into the water. She also said that the fish might not be the only ones being harmed. It has yet to be shown, but there’s a chance that harmful substances ingested by the fish might still be present when they come to market, or even in other lake animals further down the food chain. Research is ongoing to see if this is in fact the case.

The problem of plastics in the world's waterways has and continues to spread rapidly. According to Rios, plastic production has swelled by 500 percent since 1980, and today plastics constitute the bulk of ocean pollution, accounting for 80 to 90 percent. Plastic bags and bottles, and fishing lines make up much of the plastic, but the researchers also collected a large amount of plastic pellets that are shipped to factories around the world to be melted down and molded into all forms of product.

The Great Lakes are the largest group of freshwater lakes in the world, accounting for 20 percent of the Earth’s freshwater surface. In addition to being “used as a garbage dump,” the National Wildlife Federation says the Lakes have been polluted with toxic chemicals from factory waste, agriculture and development near its shores. Like the Great Lakes and the north Pacific, the waters that hold the Great Barrier Reef in balance are being spoiled by human activity. Technology allows us to achieve great things – so many goods are made affordable, for example, by mass production. But when mass production is not responsibly planned out and regulated, trash starts piling up.

Peter Murray

Peter Murray was born in Boston in 1973. He earned a PhD in neuroscience at the University of Maryland, Baltimore studying gene expression in the neocortex. Following his dissertation work he spent three years as a post-doctoral fellow at the same university studying brain mechanisms of pain and motor control. He completed a collection of short stories in 2010 and has been writing for Singularity Hub since March 2011.

Discussion — 8 Responses

  • randomname5 May 8, 2013 on 6:14 am

    The system deleted my pithy and insightful comment and it is now lost for all eternity.

  • cassini May 8, 2013 on 6:20 am

    This new editorial policy of reporting negative news or problems that also deserve attention (beside, of course, the optimistic promises of technology) is very helath. It makes the blog sound more serious and realistic.

  • Che Mort May 8, 2013 on 12:16 pm

    “But when mass production is not responsibly planned out and regulated” ok whose omnipotent enough to plan production? Please don’t say “the state,” as the Soviet Union, communist china and all of the other backward communist hell holes were far more polluting then the west.

    Could it be that artificial resource restrictions, ie the inability to create new garbage dumps on land, has led to this mess and continues the dumping at sea? Could it be that environmental regulations have caused a bottle neck too arise which results in even greater pollution?

    Common sense goes out the window when coercion, force and violence are used. What we need is more common sense, innovation and creative thinking and less political nonsense which lacks everything stated previously.

    Lake Erie was dead when I was a kid, the greens said it would be dead for over 100 years, less than 20 years later it was back to its pristine level and you could swim and fish in it. New plasma lasers can vaporize our garbage. Better safety features can keep cargo containers from being blown over board in storms. We don’t need the club of political solutions. The Cartesian over rationalism and reductionism of the 19th century must go. There are no top down solution to any of the worlds problems.

    • turtles_allthewaydown Che Mort May 22, 2013 on 11:36 am

      Artificial resource restriction is not a factor. At all. Have you ever thrown trash on the street because you were worried that there’s not enough landfill space??

      Most people never see, never care about the landfills. They’re there, and that’s all they need to know. They put their trash in the barrel that gets taken to the curb and then it disappears.

      The problem is when people aren’t near a trash can, such as on a drive or boating. Since most of this stuff floats, even if thrown out the window on an interstate, it still eventually makes its way into the rivers and then the lakes and oceans.

      I wouldn’t call Lake Erie pristine, but it certainly is a lot better than it was in the 80’s, before clean water and clean skies legislation had been put into full effect. A country that takes care of its resources is a country that will remain prosperous.

  • Eddie Germino May 9, 2013 on 8:47 am

    By the end of this century, we will have millions of robots autonomously roaming the Earth’s land, waterways and oceans, cleaning up trash. Vastly more advanced recycling methods (using genetically engineered microorganisms and possible nanomachines) will enable us to break down all the trash.

    • turtles_allthewaydown Eddie Germino May 22, 2013 on 11:37 am

      And how much energy and new resources (mines and wells) will it take to create all these robots? Do we really want to spend our resources in that way? It’s better to keep it clean now, that’s much, much easier than cleaning it up later when the plastic has partially degraded into tiny flakes that are hard to see and collect, but still get ingested into the food stream.

  • Robert Schreib May 10, 2013 on 1:46 pm

    Well, a recurring theme in virtually ALL science fiction, a lot of which IS written by geniuses, it even is emphasized in that “Futurama” cartoon series, is that TOTAL RECYCLING is our inevitable option for our collective survival! We’re still just trashing over half of the things we can recycle, and if we made it globally required to recycle all we can, that San Francisco recycling program could be the model for the world to follow, we would not have massive lake pollution problems like this, and further, by conserving energy needed to get recyclable materials from scratch, we would GREATLY reduce the whole world’s carbon footprint, to fight global warming a LOT. Plus it would make thousands of permanent jobs! This is one of the world’s biggest ‘No-Brainers’, and I cannot comprehend why the United Nations hasn’t demanded this option a long time ago!

    • turtles_allthewaydown Robert Schreib May 22, 2013 on 11:41 am

      I firmly believe we will be mining our landfills for metals and other materials within 40 years. Metal in particular (even gold) is in higher concentrations in landfills than it is in any remaining naturally occurring deposits.

      As far as 100% recycling goes, that won’t solve this problem. We don’t have trash in the oceans because we don’t have any other place to put the trash. We have it because people are lazy and want to dump it out the window or overboard instead of holding onto it until they get to a dumpster or whatever. Unless recycling actually pays you for the plastic bags, that activity will continue.