Saturday, August 14, 2010

Rivers, Oceans and Plastics...

(Click on photos to enlarge)

Byter Leo sent me an email that showed a polluted river in West Java, Indonesia that was so putrid that it defied belief. Most of the emails and videos that are sent these days are photoshopped or hoaxes, so that my attitude is usually a healthy scepticism until it is proven to be valid. In this case the video was real.

The river is known as the Citarum River and it has been described by various commentators as the most polluted river in the world.

Where once the river was gently flowing with a natural beauty, where villagers fished with nets, used the river water for their homes and to irrigate their rice paddies, today it is choked with the domestic waste of 9 million people and the industrial waste of hundreds of factories.

Were it not for villagers in tiny wooden boats, risking health and lives by seeking refuse that might be sold for some tiny monetary return, it would be difficult to appreciate that it is a waterway.

The Citarum is the largest river in West Java. In the late 1980’s the area rapidly industrialised. Today there are over 500 factories on its 320 kilometre length, all spewing its industrial and chemical wastes into the river. Human toilet waste, domestic waste and anything else that needs to be disposed of is all put into the river.

Nonetheless, the water is still used for irrigating the rice paddies, cooking, drinking and washing.

The Citarum River is one of 2 rivers feeding Lake Saguling, where the French have built the largest power generator in West Java. Experts have predicted that as the river chokes, water will not be available for the power generator, electricity will not be available and the factories will close.

In December 5, 2008, the Asian Development Bank approved a $500 million loan for cleaning up the river, calling it the world's dirtiest.

As part of the larger picture, the river feeds into the ocean, the pollution becoming part of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, also known as the Pacific Trash Vortex and as Plastic Soup,  a collection of plastics, chemical sludge and other waste and debris that is trapped by the currents of the North Pacific Gyre.

The circular swirling currents of the North Pacific form a gyre, similar to a giant whirlpool. There are 5 such oceanic gyres worldwide:

The North Pacific Gyre traps floating waste, such waste covering an area estimated to be the size of the Northern Territory and perhaps even as large as the United States of America. Pollutants range in size from abandoned fishing nets to micro-pellets used in abrasive cleaners. Plastic accounts for 90% of all debris floating in the oceans - with every square mile containing close to 46,000 pieces. Currents carry debris from the west coast of North America to the gyre in about six years and debris from the east coast of Asia in a year or less.

There is a similar floating plastic garbage dump in the Atlantic Ocean.

All the gyres are gathering plastic waste and other pollutants.

Apart from the leaching of potentially toxic chemicals into the ocean, there is also a major problem that as plastic breaks down and disintegrates, the pieces ultimately become small enough to be ingested by aquatic organisms which reside near the ocean's surface. Plastic waste thus enters the food chain, where it acts as sponges for a variety of anthropogenic chemicals (e.g. hydrocarbons and DDT).

Some comments:

“What goes into the ocean goes into these animals and onto your dinner plate. It's that simple."
    - Marcus Eriksen, research director of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation.

“The four worst-offending plastics – carrier bags, bottle-tops, bottles and styrofoam – are some we could easily do without, with a bit more thought. It’s just about making the effort to change our habits: not getting chips in a styrofoam container, reusing carrier bags – small things.”
    - Jo Royle, skipper of the Plastiki, a catamaran made out of 12,500 reclaimed plastic bottles and waste products, which sailed from San Francisco to Sydney to highlight the problems with plastic pollutants. It is on display at the Australian National Maritime Museum in Darling Harbour until late August 2010.

“People imagine it as a kind of football pitch of rubbish you can go and walk on – it’s not like that.” As most of the plastic has been broken down into tiny particles, floating beneath the surface, it is impossible to photograph from aircraft or satellites, or even really to see until you are right in its centre. As a result, it is difficult to convey the grave danger this 100 million tons or so of rubbish – and counting – presents.”
    - Dr Simon Boxall, physical oceanographer at the National Oceanography Centre at the University of Southampton

“There is nothing we can do (about the Pacific Trash Vortex). It’s too big. It’s here to stay. It’s like nuclear waste. Even an oil spillage, disastrous as it is, eventually breaks down. Plastic doesn’t. We’ve simply got to become better about how we dispose of waste.”
    - Dr Simon Boxall


  1. Do you know where can I get the video?

  2. Just to say that you should take off the picture with the dead fishes, which was not taken on the Citarum River, but on a lake in China, after a pollution accident in 2007:
    The rest of the post is very interesting.


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