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You, your trash, and the other side of the planet

Author Thomas Kostigen travels around the world — from Jerusalem to Mumbai to the jungles of the Amazon — to uncover firsthand knowledge of what life is like on the cusp of environmental devastation. An excerpt.
/ Source: TODAY

Author Thomas Kostigen travels around the world — from Jerusalem to Mumbai to the jungles of the Amazon — to uncover firsthand knowledge of what life is like on the cusp of environmental devastation. An excerpt.

After the runaway success of Al Gore’s "An Inconvenient Truth"several years ago, it became clear that people werebent on finding ways to become more environmentallyfriendly in every aspect of their lives. "An Inconvenient Truth" raisedimportant issues and left people wondering what they could doto help stop global warming.

To address this need, I wrote "The Green Book: The Everyday Guide to Saving the Planet One Simple Step at a Time", a book thatprovides solutions — more than four hundred — that people caneasily adopt into their everyday lives. It put environmental issuesinto accessible language and appeared at a time when the greenfrenzy was just beginning: I traveled the country speaking aboutthe tips and advice in that book. I answered hundreds of e-mails,fielded question after question, and watched as the green marketingmachine took off. Eco-friendly products began appearingon store shelves. Hybrid car sales began to sizzle. Lots of “green”homes hit the market. Green rock concerts were staged. Greentelevision shows aired. One Web site even offered green sex tips.Clearly the green movement had entered the mainstream.

But something was getting lost in the rush to market. The issues were getting diluted. The reasoning and rationale for becoming environmentally friendly were becoming commercialized to the extent that people weren’t buying “green” anymore, they were being sold it. There was and continues to be a general lack of understanding about why what we do matters.

I began to ask a very simple question after every green solutionI heard: “Who cares?” And by that I meant who beyond just meare these problems and solutions affecting?

I couldn’t put many faces or many images to the answer to that question; data, sure, but I was at a loss to connect actual people, places, and things.

This book puts images to actions. It is an effort to move beyond the noise, beyond the unbearable weight of the problems.

You will get outside the house, your comfortable and known world, and be taken to places you may have only heard about. You will become an environmental voyeur. You will see what’s affecting the world and at the same time become empowered to change its course.

This is not green-lite. It’s an adventure story structured to take you on a journey of understanding.

You will be transported into the thick of the most environmentally tenuous places on the planet. The hope is that doing so will create a sense of appreciation for the world and for how each of us, individually, can effect change for the future. Disaster will occur only if we ignore the Earth’s problems and stand by and do nothing and leave the problems up to others to fix. It’s impossible to take ourselves as individuals out of the equation that will cure the environmental ills of the world. We are here; we are contributing to these ills in surprising ways, ways in which many of us are unaware. We may reduce, reuse, recycle. So we save a tree. We use less gas. We conserve power. What effect do those actions really have on the world? So much of this information is in a vacuum — it is lacking a necessary context. We have been told, not shown, which issues matter and why.

Read on and you will be taken to the frontlines of the environmental battlegrounds. This isn’t about conjecture or the future. In these pages, we travel to distant and exotic locations to make clear the price of our current actions.

You’ll see just how far-reaching the effects of our actions are and where they end up — in the middle of the ocean, deep in the jungle.

Simply put, we can all continue to enjoy the world’s natural resources without great sacrifice. We need to understand, however, which issues we should be focused on and why. For the green movement to continue and go on beyond a fad, we need to have a good grip on the matter of caring. Caring about the effects of our actions is what will make all these green things we do sustainable.

I am not an all-sum environmentalist who believes wearing hemp and eating only “dead” fruits and vegetables will save the world. This kind of extremism is off-putting and does not advance the issues at hand. I am out there in the world stumbling, fumbling, and mumbling around much like you. I am not one to preach. But within these pages you will find one real plea — that’s right: Care.

Everything else, I believe, will follow. Of course I try to provide examples of what people should care about and what will be in our and the planet’s best interest. You’ll be the judge of whether any of that sticks.

There is too much passing the buck these days — that businesses must change first, that the government must set new policies in order for anything to really make a difference. It is easy to write off any real responsibility. Regardless of who does what, we as individuals have to let businesses and governments know that we indeed have a say in our future. To fully understand the issues, we have to be informed about the world in which we live and what environmental issues are trying it most.

So buckle up, settle in, and take note of the ride that follows. We are off the road and exposing the most provocative environmental issues of our time. Trust me; you will care about what you read.

Chapter 8:Where the currents take our trashThe Eastern Garbage Patch, Pacific Ocean

In the middle of the Pacific Ocean drifts a garbage patch twice the size of Texas. The circular rotation around it draws in trash like a vortex. Flotsam and other debris combine to form huge floating clouds of waste. This waste comes from cargo ships: eighty thousand pairs of Nike sneakers, tens of thousands of rubber duckies — yes, rubber duckies, bobbing around since a cargo spill in 1992 — the odd, or should I say odder, disgorge of hockey equipment from yet another spill. All this mashed together with plastic bottles, tops, six-pack holders, and other litter that degrades into smaller and smaller fragments as it is exposed to the elements; bite-sized pieces for birds and fish that eventually die from ingesting them.

The Eastern Garbage Patch is a lethal marine habitat that has grown and expanded over decades.

It isn’t just cargo ship mishaps that cause these vast waves of waste in the North Pacific Gyre. We contribute to it too. Around 60 billion tons of plastic are produced each year, about 10 percent of which ends up in the sea. About 20 percent of this is from ships and platforms, the rest from land. In other words, about 80 percent of the trash that ends up in the ocean comes from onshore. The wind carries it, sewage pipes spill it, even our garbage disposals make ways for waste to enter storm water drains and to eventually flow out into the ocean.

Take a walk along the beach anywhere in the world and you’ll find plastic bags, bottles, and containers. Along with traffic cones, disposable lighters, old tires, and toothbrushes, these items have been casually tossed away. From the shore, they get carried by wind and tide to the sea. Currents bring them here, to the largest dumpsite in the world, where they join the mass of plastic, paper, oil, rubber, wood, rope, fishnets, and virtually every other type of material on the planet.

We’ve already seen how pollutants from local landfills contaminate air, soil, and groundwater. But the oceans are vast. And when toxins pollute the sea, there is potential for even greater environmental hazard. Oceans occupy 70 percent of the Earth’s surface and are home to over 90 percent of all life on the planet. Seafood is the primary source of protein for many coastal peoples. Worldwide, nearly a billion people rely on fish for a big source of their daily food protein. When we pollute the water, we pollute the fish.

The Eastern Garbage Patch through which I am sailing off the coast of Hawaii is contributing to the ocean’s demise. Rivers, streams, and sewage pipes propel waste out to sea, and it eventually ends up here. This is the place about which we sometimes wonder: “Where does all the sewage go that’s pumped out into the ocean?” In this area there are about a million pieces of garbage within every square mile, according to some estimates. Currents pull and drag garbage in this direction, not far from where pirates, I’m told, used to search for bodies fallen overboard. They understood the movement of the currents, and knew where to find drifting loot and corpses. This is also near where the first Hawaiians are said to have landed from Polynesia.

Hawaii acts as a comb for the Garbage Patch. Nineteen islands and atolls comprise the Hawaiian Islands. They sit smack between North America and Asia in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and are the most remote islands on Earth. The Eastern Garbage Patch is estimated to float between the coast of California and the Hawaiian Islands; and there’s a “superhighway” from there to another ocean garbage patch just south of Japan, the Western Garbage Patch. That patch collects trash from Asia, Russia, India, and the Malaysian Peninsula and deposits tons of trash on the south coast of Japan; its concentration of debris is said to be even higher than what I am seeing here.

The superhighway acts like a funnel connecting the two garbage patches. It’s how whiskey bottles from Japan, pill bottles from India, Korean detergent containers, and oil cartons from Guatemala make their way to the Hawaiian shores. Those are things I saw firsthand.

Captain Charles Moore has been investigating the Eastern Garbage Patch since 1997, when he stumbled across it while speeding across the ocean during the Transpacific Yacht Race. The TransPac race starts in Los Angeles and ends in Honolulu.

“Usually, you go in a straight line and you don’t go through the Garbage Patch. But there was an El Niño in ’97, and a lot of debris had floated south, so I noticed it.” He relates this story to me as we sit on the deck of his boat, the Alguita, early one morning in Hilo, Hawaii, as the sun rises in front of us.

He says the gyres — giant, circular oceanic surface currents — calm the waters between Hawaii and California; so much so that yachtsmen typically sail north toward Oregon or Alaska to catch enough wind before tacking south. The calm waters are known in the sailing world as the “horse latitudes,” because it was here in times past that ships would jettison their horses overboard to lighten their loads and make better headway in the calms.

At any rate, Moore had some extra fuel that year and decided to take some time on his way back to California to trace the scores of bottles, caps, and plastic bags he was seeing in the ocean. “It’s a big blue ocean so you expect to see some trash part of the time. But for a whole week we were seeing it,” he says. The Garbage Patch is spread out and debris is dispersed on the ocean’s surface as well as underneath.

“It isn’t what people think. It isn’t some pile of garbage that you can land on and see all of the time,” Moore says. But you can see garbage much of the time, for miles and miles. That piqued Moore’s interest. So he started doing some investigating, taking samples he found along the way.

Moore is the go-to expert when anyone investigates the Eastern Garbage Patch because he has been the most active in trawling it.

Before he stumbled across the patch, Moore had been conducting water-quality samples along the West Coast of the United States, examining areas of pollution, mostly from where rivers meet the sea. Little did he know how far the pollution extended.

The Eastern Garbage Patch begins to take hold about a thousand miles off the California coast. It’s extensive and it’s spread out. It’s filled with myriad materials, but mostly plastics. And as we all know, plastic does not biodegrade but rather breaks down into tinier and tinier pieces; it doesn’t go away. For example, there are enough particles of plastic in just one liter-sized bottle to put a piece on every mile of beach in the entire world. Those are the tiny particles that are ingested by fish and other sea life. Now think about those 129 million plastic water and soda bottles we discard every day. Those alone are enough to make an ocean of plastic, or what Moore has come to call “the synthetic sea.”

Excerpted from "You Are Here: Exposing the Vital Link Between What We Do and What That Does to Our Planet." Copyright (c) 2008 by Thomas Kostigen. Reprinted with permission from HarperCollins. To read more, click .