We are often encouraged to pause on Earth Day to appreciate the natural world that surrounds us. Here on the North Shore and Merrimack Valley, we are fortunate to be constantly reminded of that bounty in the sandy expanse of Crane Beach, the deep, dark woods of Dogtown and the slow, strong pull of the Merrimack River.
Seeing such beauty every day compels us to protect it. We limit access to fragile parts of the beach, push to protect the woods from development and pass laws aimed at reducing the flow of sewage into our waterways.
But there is so much more we can’t see on this, the 51st Earth Day.
Take, for instance the growing problem of plastics in the ocean, where we see only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. For every plastic bag or bottle we see bobbing along coastal waters, there are thousands deep below the surface, slowly disintegrating and polluting the entire marine ecosystem.
“The majority of plastic debris that (ends) up in the ocean (is) missing,” Ryota Nakajima, a marine biology researcher at the Japan Agency for Marine Earth-Science and Technology, told The Academic Times.
Between 4.8 million and 12.7 million tons of plastic makes its way into the ocean every year. The stuff you see floating on the surface is only a few percentage points of the total. If that pace continues, by 2050 there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish by weight.
Massive accumulations of plastic have been found in some of the deepest places on Earth, more than 6 miles beneath the ocean surface.
“The abundance of plastic debris leaking into the ocean continues to increase, but the floating plastic debris on the surface of the ocean eventually is transported into the deeper water,” Nakajima said. “This will foster illusions in your mind that debris is not increasing. But the truth is, plastic debris accumulates on the deep-sea floor as undying garbage.”
It’s not just the ocean. We are also increasingly treating space as a bottomless landfill. And as the pace of exploration and commercial expansion grows, we are learning that’s not the case.
Research from the Italian National Research Council’s Institute of Information Science and Technologies has found that so much trash from past space missions has accumulated in Earth’s low orbit that a third to half of the zone’s space for future activities has already been filled.
The research council estimated there are millions of pieces of space junk — parts of rockets and satellites and other chunks of machinery in orbit around the Earth.
Some of those pieces are very small — think a fleck of paint less than a half inch long. And they are very far apart. But they travel very fast — more than 22,000 miles per hour — and can disable a satellite in a collision. A 4-inch piece of space junk can destroy a spacecraft.
“Today, with the impetuous flowering of the so-called New Space Economy, characterized by the deployment of countless satellites and mega-constellations, the problem is becoming really urgent, because some wrong decisions or actions taken now may have lasting adverse consequences on space operations, in particular in low Earth orbit,” said Carmen Pardini, a co-author of the study.
So what can be done?
“Any true progress in the field of space debris will be the result of a deep and wide amount of international cooperation,” co-author Luciano Anselmo told the Academic Times. “But countries, governments and international organizations alone are not enough anymore. Private companies must be involved in the loop as soon as possible.”
Closer to home, almost 80% of the plastic found in the ocean is made up of drink bottles, plastic bags, food packaging and the like. It’s obvious efforts to eliminate such single-use plastics need to be stepped up. We may not be able to see the problem. But we can’t pretend it doesn’t exist.