Friday, June 6, 2008

Plastics, etc.

Recently I wrote a blog about the dire consequences for humans lurking in plastic bottles because of a substance called Bisphenol A. Essentially, the problem with this polymer—of which we produce upwards of 6 billion pounds each year—is that it mimics estrogen in the human body. This means that, as an endocrine disruptor, Bisphenol A can affect reproductive organs and lead to such things as male fish and seagulls sprouting female sex organs, declining fertility rates, and cancers.

Sadly, the side effects of our addiction to plastic has another effect that is being increasingly noticed these days: the Plastic Ocean. This is a term given to a huge area—now larger than the continental United States—that is accumulating garbage in the north Pacific Ocean. The accumulating effect is due to a mountain of air, heated at the equator, which produces circular ocean currents. These currents, in turn, act like a vortex or gyre, spiraling towards a center of down-welling. The gyre is like a huge magnet for the garbage that humans discard, and the most nightmarish quality of this particular magnet is its capacity to attract and concentrate plastic.

Captain Charles Moore was one of the first to notice, and sail through this 10 million square mile garbage dump on his return from a sailing race on his sloop, the Alguita. He was so transformed by the experience that he thereafter devoted his life to studying and publicizing it, forming the Algalita Marin Research Foundation to do so. His conclusions are stunning and awful to contemplate. Essentially, he writes, “Anything that floats, no matter where it comes from on the north Pacific Rim or ocean, ends up here.” He points out that historically, the matter accumulating here, being made of organic compounds, would be broken down by microorganisms. In the last 150 years or so (plastic was discovered around 1865 by John W. Hyatt, seeing to make a synthetic replacement for billiard balls. He first created celluloid, then rayon in 1891, Teflon in 1938, and polypropylene in 1954), the accumulating matter has been dominated by plastic, a substance that does not break down, ever. What plastic does do, according to Moore, is “photo-degrade—a process in which it is broken down by sunlight into smaller and smaller pieces, all of which are still plastic polymers, eventually becoming individual molecules of plastic, still too tough for anything to digest.” (see “Plastic is Drastic: World's Largest 'Landfill' is in the Middle of the Ocean” by Charles Moore.

Moore has recently found, based on measurements of ocean water, that there exist 6 pounds of plastic for every pound of plankton! Six to one, and the proportion is growing.

Unfortunately for fish and sea birds, evolution has not equipped them with the sensory equipment to distinguish between bits of plastic and the foods, especially plankton, they need to survive. So when fish see tiny balls of plastic known as “nurdles,” they take them for fish eggs, and eat them. When birds like the Black Footed albatross see plastic caps or other delectable items, they not only eat them, but return to their nests to feed them to their young. No biological system can digest plastic. Thus, Moore has seen stomach contents that “look like the cigarette lighter shelf at a convenience store,” containing bottle caps, cigarette lighters, and tampon applicators. One dissected animal contained 1.603 pieces of plastic. Susan Casey, in an article called “Plastic Ocean: The Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” ( refers to the “moral horror” in contemplating life compromised in this way: sea turtles strangled, humpback whales towing plastic nets, and more than 1 million seabirds, 100,000 marine mammals, and no one knows how many fish perishing each year from consuming our plastic discards.

The worst part may be the effect of these bits of plastic in our food chain. The smallest creatures are now feeding on the plastic “nurdles” that infest not just the Pacific but all our oceans: there are five other high-pressure zones (read ‘garbage dumps’) in the South Pacific, the North and South Atlantic, and the Indian Oceans. More than that, every bit of seawater, within the gyre or not, that Moore has collected in recent years contains these eternal, infernal plastic bits. As Moore has put it, “25 percent of our planet is a toilet that never flushes.” And all the fish that feed on the small fish now ingesting plastic regularly also ingest the plastic with them. The result is that biologists are finding huge numbers of all kinds of fish polluted with plastic. And the pollution is not simply due to the indigestibility of plastic itself. It turns out that “nurdles”—a kind of pre-production plastic pellet that plastic manufacturers ship to companies, who in turn make plastic products from it—tend to be wonderfully efficient carriers of waste chemicals, including DDT and PCBs. They become “supersaturated poison pills,” light enough to blow around like dust, wash into harbors, storm drains, and creeks. From here they enter the fish food chain and end up in your salmon and tuna. Worse, so light and transportable are these devilish end products of human ingenuity that, according to Moore, “the whole biosphere is becoming mixed with (them)…We’re breathing them, the fish are eating them, they’re in our hair, they’re in our skin.”

The prospects for the future seem to promise only more plastic garbage and more plastically polluted life forms at every level of our biosphere. The worst part is that regardless of what any of us do to discard our plastics into our self-congratulatory plastic recycling bins, not much is really recycled—only 3 to 5 percent. Nor can plastic be incinerated, because the burning of plastic releases vapors that are even more deadly to ingest. Most goes into landfills, and eventually, our indispensable oceans.

What is to be done? Sadly, according to Moore, there is no way to rid the oceans of this stuff. We can only wait, hoping that somehow the natural organic environment can find a way to clean itself. What we can do, what each of must do, is demand that greater controls are placed on the plastics we do use, and that such things as biodegradable plastics—I have seen plastic bags in my little market which, made from corn and other products, actually biodegrade—be used everywhere they can. Each one of us can also vow to resist the use of plastic (on average, each of us uses 185 pounds of plastic per year), insofar as that is possible. Twenty-three countries have already begun, banning or restricting the use of plastic bags, with even Wal-Mart agreeing to begin using biodegradable plastics. We must also insist on a standard that green architect William McDonough calls “cradle to cradle,” wherein all our manufactured products become reusable, and poison-free.

Then, we can only pray.

Lawrence DiStasi

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