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05 February 2008 TRACKING TRASH: FLOTSAM, JETSAM, AND THE SCIENCE OF OCEAN MOTION by Loree Griffin Burns (Scientists in the Field series), Houghton Mifflin, 2007, 58p. ISBN: 0-618-58131-6


"Mr. Thompson calls the waiter, orders steak and baked potater

But he leaves the bone & gristle & he never eats the skins.

Then the bus boy comes & takes it, with a cough contaminates it

As he puts it in a can with coffee grounds & sardine tins.

Then the truck comes by on Friday & carts it all away

And a thousand trucks just like it are converging on the bay."


Perhaps the dumping of garbage into the bay is not quite as blatant today as it was back in 1969 when Bill Steele wrote his eco-ditty, "Garbage," but it seems that today's never-ending flow of plastic garbage into the oceans is of more dire and destructive consequence to the oceans' long-term survival than anything they've previously faced. This is one of the conclusions to be drawn from the fascinating and important TRACKING TRASH: FLOTSAM, JETSAM, AND THE SCIENCE OF OCEAN MOTION.


Who knew that beachcombers kept meticulous logs of their finds or that they actually held conventions? Dr. Curtis Ebbesmeyer, an oceanographer who began his widely-publicized work with ocean currents and tracking trash when his mom asked him to figure out why hundreds of sneakers had begun washing up on beaches near Seattle, has uncovered significant clues through his ongoing communications with beachcombers. We learn in TRACKING TRASH that there are slight changes year to year in the oceans' currents and that projections of those current flows is now a well-refined science whose origins harken back to scientific work by Benjamin Franklin.


The first part of TRACKING TRASH is especially entertaining to read. Huge cargo containers periodically fall from enormous cargo ships in big storms. The cargo gets loose and takes off with the currents. Many readers will be amused by the thought of eighty thousand Nike sneakers drifting eastward in the currents, of twenty-nine thousand rubber duckies and froggies bobbing merrily along, or of five million LEGO pieces breaking loose in the middle of the Atlantic. But the incidents of lost cargo are a drop in the bucket; they're less than one-fifth of the problem. The remainder, the more serious story, is of large quantities of garbage -- so much of it plastic-based -- getting flushed out of rivers and bays into the sea.


Having fond memories of creating "whirlpools" with friends in little backyard swimming pools, it is not surprising to learn that when a stream of indestructible plastic garbage is continually dumped into the ocean, it will eventually come together in a big bobbing mass surrounded by circulating currents. What is impressive (or, more likely, alarming and depressing) is that a so-called Garbage Patch in the Pacific is now as big as the state of Alaska and estimated to be composed of the accumulation of six BILLION pounds of plastic this, plastic that, and plastic everything else.


"What happens to this plastic trash during the decades it floats around the Garbage Patch? Not much, because plastic is one of the most indestructible materials on the planet. This is one of the reasons we find it so useful. Plastic is found in everything, from the toys we play with to the plates we eat from, the cars we drive, and even the clothes we wear.

"Unfortunately, the very property that makes plastic a useful material for all these items makes it virtually impossible to get rid of. There is no organism anywhere on the planet that can digest plastic. A long exposure to sunshine, wind,, and waves will eventually break plastic objects into smaller and smaller pieces of plastic, but those small pieces are still made entirely of indestructible, indigestible plastic.


And when birds and marine mammals get mixed up with all of this plastic they die.


"Bottle caps and disposable lighters are seen in the carcasses of sea birds found on beaches from Hawaii to Washington. Apparently the birds are mistaking floating plastic for food. Many of these birds die of starvation because the plastic filling their stomachs can be neither digested nor excreted. Discarded fishing nets and other fishing gear can tangle and drown fish, sea turtles, seals, and other animals. Experts now estimate that the number of marine mammals in the Pacific Ocean that die each year due to plastic ingestion and net entanglement approaches 100,000."


This particular passage in the well-illustrated book is accentuated with a photo of a dead, rotting bird complete with the fifty-nine plastic pieces that were stuck in its gut.


The immediate solution? Reduce. Reuse. Recycle. If plastic bags are so indestructible, then I shouldn't take one unless I'm going to reuse it numerous times and then recycle it. Long term, there is no question that big changes must be made in terms of manufacturing and consuming so much petroleum-based plastic stuff.


"There's nothing left to watch & there's nothing left to touch

There's nothing left to walk upon & nothing left to talk upon

And nothing left to see & nothing left to be but Garbage!"


As with other books I've read in the Scientists in the Field series, TRACKING TRASH reveals the profiled scientists to be pretty cool people with extremely interesting jobs. It'll definitely inspire interest by readers in science.


Richie Partington, MLIS

Richie's Picks http://richiespicks.com

Moderator, http://groups.yahoo.com/group/middle_school_lit/




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