This won’t be my usual post. I wrote a research paper this semester. The paper is about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and the problem with plastic in the environment. A World Away From Plastic is longer than what I usually write, but I think it’s worth a read.
A World Away from Plastic
It started as a murmur, a rumor, an outlandish story. People said it could not be true. It was the ranting of a crazy sailor. Critics asked for real proof. Why could it not be seen from satellite photos? Why had we not heard about this before now? Some said it was a conspiracy, like global warming. Science, as well as the average citizen, is now coming to grips with the reality of The Great Pacific Garbage Patch churning in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
The journey began with a slow ocean voyage off the beaten path, so to speak. A group of sailors, led by Captain Charles Moore, took an unusual path from Honolulu to Long Beach. No one, but a madman, would take a direct path though the North Pacific Gyre. The Gyre is a slow turning, windless expanse of the Pacific Ocean. Most boats and ships follow a route around the Gyre using the natural flow of currents and winds of the Pacific. While taking a lazy cruise through the Gyre, Captain Moore and his crew started noticing an ever-increasing flow of plastic flotsam. As the motley group started fishing plastic debris out, they noticed the plastic was not just floating on the surface, but it was hanging below the water. This first close encounter with what is now called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch was in 1997, almost 13 years ago (Ferris 46).
The first estimates of the size of the Garbage Patch were a few hundred miles across. Unfortunately, it is now known to be far vaster than that. According to Captain Moore the patch is “two to three times the size of Texas…” (qtd. in Ferris 47). Others believe it could be “5 million square miles, or one and a half times the size of the United States” (qtd. in Ferris 47). Either way it is close to being its own continent.
How could so much plastic have accumulated in the Pacific Ocean? Yes, plastic is laced throughout our lives. As Americans, we do love a disposable product. It seems that every time one turns on the television there is another advertisement for another convenience product that can be tossed immediately after use. Almost everything we purchase is hermetically sealed in layer after layer of plastic, to protect us from certain disaster or death. When one looks around a home, it is difficult to touch something that is not made of plastic, containing plastic or wrapped in plastic. Even sadder is that most plastic is not recycled (“Municipal” 5). It all heads to gargantuan landfills heaped with all the discarded remnants of our life. Unfortunately, on the way to the landfills, the winds and waters of the world carry away a remarkable amount of the plastic.
There is more to the plastic problem than just the amount of it. Plastic does not biodegrade. It is an entirely different beast than other material. Plastics created out of petrochemicals photodegrade (Moore 47). Photodegradation means the polymer breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces, but it is still a plastic polymer, even on a microscopic level (Thompson et al. para 4). Plastic is here forever. It does not break into separate components such as carbon and hydrogen molecules. It is forever plastic.
What does that mean to the average person? After all, the monstrosity, growing in the Pacific Gyre, will never confront most of us. The fear that science is just starting to study, and become concerned about, is the concept of plastic entering our food chain. If animals of the oceans are consuming plastic, and they are, then how long before it bioaccumulates and biomagnifies in humans? Some believe it already has (Thompson et al. 5). According to Environmental Science by Cunningham and Cunningham, bioaccumulation is “the selective absorption and concentration of molecules by cells”, and biomagnification is an “increase in concentration of certain stable chemicals (for example, heavy metals or fat-soluble pesticides) in successively higher trophic levels of a food chain or web.” These terms mean that chemicals and toxins move to the top of the food chain: us. Each time the toxin goes up a level it is concentrated, which means it is more toxic the higher it goes. Again, this is distressing news for us, because we are at the top of the food chain.
How long has plastic been accumulating in the environment? Is plastic something we are just now seeing for the environmental issue it is? No, people have been writing about pollution from plastic for decades. Plastic has been around for one hundred years, but it was during WWII that production was put into high gear (O’Hara et al. 5). After WWII, a deluge of new plastic products were let loose on society. The list of new consumer products, noted by Alan Weisman, included “acrylic textiles, Plexiglass, polyethylene bottles, polypropylene containers, and ‘foam rubber’ polyurethane toys” The items that were the most revolutionary and life-changing were clear packaging plastics “including self-clinging wraps of polyvinyl chloride and polyethylene, which let us see the foods wrapped inside them and kept them preserved longer than ever before” (Weisman 118-119). After 10 years, this new miracle of the modern age had changed how we used things. Life Magazine coined the term ‘throwaway society’” (qtd. in Weisman 119). Few things touch our lives as much as plastic.
What is plastic? As clarified by Alan Weisman in The World Without Us, “Plastics are polymers: simple molecular configurations of carbon and hydrogen atoms that link together repeatedly to form chains.” Leo Baekeland invented it in 1909 by combining carbolic acid with formaldehyde (Doucette 56). Since its discovery, plastic has been altered, and added to, to create different types of plastic with various applications and attributes. Plastic is amazingly tough, strong and lightweight. It can be rigid or flexible, soft or hard and solid or squishy. It seems humans can manipulate it in millions of different ways, and for millions of different uses. When we started using plastic for everything under the sun, we did not think about what it meant for the future of the planet.
How did all this plastic wind up as an enormous floating mass in the middle of the ocean? Ships’ dumping their waste at sea is one way. Commercial fishing boats to luxury vessels were all guilty of this nasty little practice. Ocean dumping has now been outlawed (O’Hara et al. 1). Another way plastic makes its way into the ocean is through common littering. How many gutters, creeks, lakes, rivers and shorelines do you see strewn with garbage casually tossed out a window? The wind is also guilty of carrying lightweight plastic out of landfills, trucks, and overflowing garbage bins into our waterways.
One of the newer ways that plastic is getting into waterways is in products with plastic beads designed to wash down the drain, along with horribly rough, dead skin from which we are being saved. There are hundreds of products with microbeads, polyethylene beads, and plastic beads. These products all mean the same thing, tiny plastic particles washing directly into our watersheds, and right to where animals mistake the beads for food, and consume them. These polyethylene particles come in women’s skin and face care products, designed to strip dead skin cells, and leave behind the silkiest of skin. We buy these products never thinking about what is in them, or what is going down the drain. Some of the commercials for the exfoliators create a feeling of dreamy, mermaid-inspired, waterscapes. How could there be anything nefarious about these products? Nefarious they are. There is no way to recycle or keep “micro” plastic out of the waterways, due to their miniscule size. There are perfect, natural scrubbers such as sugar, salt, crushed shells and seeds that work just as well, and biodegrade (Weisman 117). The polyethylene micro-particles are not only in skin care products but household and industrial cleansers, as well. Small plastic particles strip and scour surfaces where sand, pumice or water used to be used. The trend of using plastic based articles has been growing over the last few years (Ferris 49).
Plastic also gets into the ecosystem by way of a little item, with a cute name, the nurdle. Nurdles are not cute. Nurdles are the building blocks of plastic products that come in every conceivable color, and make up 10 percent of the plastic waste found in the oceans of the world (Ferris 45). The problem with nurdles is their small edible size. Captain Moore explains that “5.5 quadrillion pellets” are produced annually (48). Nurdles are accidentally released into the environment, because industry doesn’t properly police them in factories. The release of nurdles could be reduced if companies implemented nurdle recovery programs.
There is a staggering amount of plastic consumed by marine animals including; birds, turtles, fish, mussels, barnacles and lugworms just to name a few (Ferris 49). Some creatures are eating so much plastic that they are dying from malnutrition because they are too full of plastic to eat food (Ferris 48). 100,000 marine mammals and one million marine birds are killed every year by plastic in the waterways of the world (Ferris 48). Those are outrageous numbers, and we should all be concerned. We certainly would be concerned if our pets were dying in such vast numbers. Citizens would be picketing and boycotting companies if poor, little Fido died from consuming plastic bags and nurdles.
What is even worse than the consumption of plastic particles, is that plastic absorbs toxins from the surrounding water. As toxicologist Hedeshige Takada cited “nurdles and other plastics suck up toxins like sponges” (qtd. in Ferris 49). Two toxins absorbed by plastics are PCB’s and DDT, both of which bioaccumulate in bodies of humans and animals (Ferris 50). This ought to be catching our attention, and curling our toes. Just hearing PCB’s and DDT strikes fear into the heart of the average American. One is reminded of stories like “Love Canal” and other toxic hot spots. Scientists know that PBCs cause liver damage in humans and may cause cancer, and that DDT causes nerve damage (Ferris 50).
Steps need to be taken to cut our consumption of plastic here and around the world. Some countries have implemented plastic reduction programs on a countrywide scale. One of the best examples of plastic reduction is in Germany. Germany sells most of its produce loose, and without plastic packaging. Citizens bring their own reusable bags because there is a charge for single use plastic bags (Ueta, Koizumi 29). In 1991, Germany passed a packaging ordinance, which strongly encouraged German manufacturers to reduce the amount of packaging used in the “production stage” of goods (Ueta, Koizumi 30). Germany also has a “deposit system” for glass and PET bottles along with refillable containers. All of these ideas reduce the production of plastic as well as the waste stream associated with plastic.
Let us say we have reduced the amount of plastic in packaging, which would be a terrific thought since we currently produce 40,000,000 tons of plastic packaging worldwide (Srinivasa, Tharanathan 56), and we’re recycling as much of the plastic as we can. We still have plastic in the packaging we are using, and it is still not biodegradable. What is the next step? How about plastic that is bio-based and not fossil fuel based? That is precisely what packaging experts are working on right now. Some restaurants are already using a sugar, cellulose, and starch based “Styrofoam” and “plastic” take-home containers, but not enough. More options are on the way and include protein, chitin and chitosan based plastics. Chitin and chitosan are newer materials, being studies for use in packaging. Chitin and chitosan are made from shellfish and crustacean waste in seafood production (Srinivasa, Tharanathan 61). Yes, it does sound a bit disgusting, but it is proving to be an ideal packaging material.
Scientists and engineers are working on making plastic more recyclable than it is right now (“Making Plastics”). In a new process with solvents “using this technology, the overall recycling rate for end-of-life cars-metals, plastics, and textiles-can be increased to over 90%” explains Marin Schlummer, project manager. We also need to address the issue of recycling. America is doing a woefully poor job of recycling. Across the board, we are failing to recycle all the products we can, at levels that we should. According to the EPA, which has kept track of waste and recycling rates over the last 30 years, in 2008 “Americans generated about 250 million tons of trash and recycled and composted 83 million tons of this material, equivalent to a 33.2 percent recycling rate*.” Plastic consistently has the lowest recycling rates, compared to other recyclables in the U.S. We only recycled 27.2 percent of PET bottles and jars, and 29.3 percent in HDPE natural (white translucent bottles). Compare those numbers to 70.9 percent in office-type paper, 62.8 percent in steel cans and 48.2 percent in aluminum cans (“Municipal” 8). Although, we have improved our recycling rates, we have also increased our plastic production rates. If we are to reduce our plastic waste, output we need to raise our rates of recycling of plastic to much higher levels.
None of the ideas previously address the plastic pollution already floating in seas around the world. What can be done to reduce the level of plastic, floating in our waterways covering the planet? One possible theory is to use plastic waste as a fuel source for new diesel (“Diesel” para 1). This is still an experimental idea, and it may not be applicable to plastic waste floating in the sea. Clean up does seem daunting, but it is not impossible. We do need to stem the flow of waste. Plastic that is gleaned from the ocean then needs to be recycled into products and kept out of landfills as much as possible. We should think of this mass of plastic as an untapped resource that could save natural resources.
The one dissent voiced around the issue of recycling, and packaging reduction is the economic argument. If the U.S. had a federal recycling law, it would cause hardship to communities. If the U.S. requires industry to change, or reduce packaging, then it will mean economic disaster for our economy. These arguments come from fear, misinformation, and lack of understanding of the environmental problem. There are far greater economic disasters that wait if we do nothing to address the issue of plastic pollution in waterways around the world. Do we wait until studies prove plastic has accumulated in the food chain? Do we wait until there is a collapse of the marine ecosystem before we address the overuse of plastic in our society? The collapse of the marine ecosystem seems like a bigger problem than short-term economic challenges. An entire book titled Economic Losses from Marine Pollution: A Handbook for Assessment, written by Douglas D. Ofiara and Joseph J. Seneca address just such issues. The first chapter of the book is about one bay in one state that was highly polluted. The estimated economic cost of one bay was 68.8 million dollars in 1996, covering a 106-year period of time. The estimate of 106 years was how long the government estimated for the bay to recover (3-7). This amount would be a drop in the bucket compared to the cost of the collapse of the marine ecosystem of the Pacific.
Sending emails and writing letters to corporations, encouraging them to reduce packaging, surrounding the consumer goods we drag home every day, can actually work. I wrote a local spa and asked them to reconsider their use of bottled water. Not only did they ditch the bottled water, but also they saved $1200 dollars a year by doing so. There are some straightforward and easy things that we all can do to reduce plastic use. The following is a short list to incorporate into your daily life: reusable bags for all shopping trips, reusable water bottles, natural exfoliants in all cleaners, reduce the use of disposables, buy larger containers instead of single serve items, choose products with reduced or no packaging, put a plate or paper towel over a bowl in the microwave instead of plastic wrap, reducing or stopping use of disposable plastic bags in the home, reducing the use of plastic storage containers, and finally, changing our mindset from disposable to reusable. There are many little steps that everyone could take to reduce plastic waste.
America has to look at the manner in which we use and misuse plastic. Companies need to be held responsible for the amount of plastic packaging they are contributing to the waste flow. Whether we navigate through the Great Pacific Garbage Patch or not, it is something that does affect all of us, and that affect will only grow. It is up to us to write and vote, and make a change.
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