Spritzophrenia

humour, music, life, sociology. friendly agnostic.

Should We Be Anti-Plastic?

Posted by spritzophrenia on December 20, 2010

Let’s be clear: I like plastic. It’s a wonderful, useful, fantastic resource. However, I don’t like the excessive overuse and waste of plastic in our world. A typical walk along the beach or forest path yields a plethora of faded plastic crap. It’s ugly, and it’s dangerous.

Although I don’t have figures, I suspect that over 75% of our current plastic use is un-necessary and wasteful. I really don’t like seeing all the plastic garbage in our rivers, beaches, roads and parks. That stuff will stay there polluting our world for years.

Most commercially used plastic is derived from petroleum oil, which is running out. I’m not concerned here with when it will run out, but there’s no question that one day it will. If we want to be able to keep the benefits of plastic, we must elminate all non-essential uses of plastic to help prolong the use of petroleum oil for essential things. There are bioplastic alternatives which need more exploration, promotion and use.

Plastic packaging is a primary concern of mine. How often do we purchase a takeaway coffee, for example, to be given a plastic lid for the cup which is immediately thrown away. How often do we buy bottled water, or milk, only to throw away the bottle once used?

Plastic contributes to a vast amount of landfill waste, and can take many hundreds of years to biodegrade.

plastic pollution

The Myth of Recycling

Some plastics are recyclable. However, there is a mythology around plastic recycling. Many of the plastics we use every day are either not recyclable, or are so hard to recycle that in practice recycling never happens. Having worked in a landfill in my own country, New Zealand, I strongly suspect that much of the plastic that is placed in recycling bins in good faith by the public never in fact gets recycled. The public has been misled into thinking they are doing the right thing: Not using the plastic in the first place is a better alternative.

Seven Misconceptions About Plastic Recycling (Ecology Center, Berkeley, CA, USA).

Floating Plastic Garbage Twice the Size of Texas

Just how bad is the situation? When I first read about an island of floating plastic garbage in our seas, I was sceptical. Surely the amount of plastic garbage in the sea could not be this bad? Unfortunately, it is:

MIDWAY ATOLL — The albatross chick jumped to its feet, eyes alert and focused. At 5 months, it stood 18 inches tall and was fully feathered except for the fuzz that fringed its head. All attitude, the chick straightened up and clacked its beak at a visitor, then rocked back and dangled webbed feet in the air to cool them in the afternoon breeze.

The next afternoon, the chick ignored passersby. The bird was flopped on its belly, its legs splayed awkwardly. Its wings drooped in the hot sun. A few hours later, the chick was dead. John Klavitter, a wildlife biologist, turned the bird over and cut it open with a knife. Probing its innards with a gloved hand, he pulled out a yellowish sac — its stomach. Out tumbled a collection of red, blue and orange bottle caps, a black spray nozzle, part of a green comb, a white golf tee and a clump of tiny dark squid beaks ensnared in a tangle of fishing line.

“This is pretty typical,” said Klavitter, who is stationed at the atoll for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “We often find cigarette lighters, bucket handles, toothbrushes, syringes, toy soldiers — anything made out of plastic.”

It’s all part of a tide of plastic debris that has spread throughout the world’s oceans, posing a lethal hazard to wildlife, even here, more than 1,000 miles from the nearest city. Midway, an atoll halfway between North America and Japan, has no industrial centers, no fast-food joints with overflowing trash cans, and only a few dozen people.

Its isolation would seem to make it an ideal rookery for seabirds, especially Laysan albatross, which lay their eggs and hatch their young here each winter. For their first six months of life, the chicks depend entirely on their parents for nourishment. The adults forage at sea and bring back high-calorie takeout: a slurry of partly digested squid and flying-fish eggs. As they scour the ocean surface for this sustenance, albatross encounter vast expanses of floating junk. They pick up all manner of plastic debris, mistaking it for food. As a result, the regurgitated payload flowing down their chicks’ gullets now includes Lego blocks, clothespins, fishing lures and other pieces of plastic that can perforate the stomach or block the gizzard or esophagus. The sheer volume of plastic inside a chick can leave little room for food and liquid. Of the 500,000 albatross chicks born here each year, about 200,000 die, mostly from dehydration or starvation. A two-year study funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency showed that chicks that died from those causes had twice as much plastic in their stomachs as those that died for other reasons.

The atoll is littered with decomposing remains, grisly wreaths of feathers and bone surrounding colorful piles of bottle caps, plastic dinosaurs, checkers, highlighter pens, perfume bottles, fishing line and small Styrofoam balls. Klavitter has calculated that albatross feed their chicks about 5 tons of plastic a year at Midway. Albatross fly hundreds of miles in their search for food for their young. Their flight paths from Midway often take them over what is perhaps the world’s largest dump: a slowly rotating mass of trash-laden water about twice the size of Texas.

This is known as the Eastern Garbage Patch, part of a system of currents called the North Pacific subtropical gyre. Located halfway between San Francisco and Hawaii, the garbage patch is an area of slack winds and sluggish currents where flotsam collects from around the Pacific, much like foam piling up in the calm center of a hot tub.

Curtis Ebbesmeyer has been studying the clockwise swirl of plastic debris so long, he talks about it as if he were tracking a beast. “It moves around like a big animal without a leash,” said Ebbesmeyer, an oceanographer in Seattle and leading expert on currents and marine debris. “When it gets close to an island, the garbage patch barfs, and you get a beach covered with this confetti of plastic.”

Some oceanic trash washes ashore at Midway — laundry baskets, television tubes, beach sandals, soccer balls and other discards. Nearly 90% of floating marine litter is plastic — supple, durable materials such as polyethylene and polypropylene, Styrofoam, nylon and saran. About four-fifths of marine trash comes from land, swept by wind or washed by rain off highways and city streets, down streams and rivers, and out to sea.

Please read the LA Times article 2 August, 2006 (PDF) and San Francisco Chronicle October 19, 2007

In fact, it looks like there are more than one garbage “gyres” in the ocean. This undated article by Thomas Hayden on shows the location and path of garbage in ocean currents. The comments in this article on boingboing from 2007 are worth reading too.

I’ve been reading about and researching plastic pollution for years. I don’t have all the answers yet, but I hope you’ll join me in spreading the word and reducing your personal use of plastic.

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5 Responses to “Should We Be Anti-Plastic?”

  1. Cristine said

    another massive concern I have with plastics is the estrogen mimicker problem in the chemicals in a lot of plastics. as someone with autoimmune issues, I am always looking at things in a “does this make my condition worse, better, or have no effect” kind of way and there are too many unanswered questions about the effects of plastics on the body and our endocrine system

  2. Plastics emit a range of chemicals that affect respiratory health eg phthalates

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phthalate

  3. Felyne said

    New Zealand is a relatively light user of plastic compared to here in the US – I’m horrified how much waste there is here, and everyone I know drinks water out of plastic bottles, even when they’re home (don’t get me started on trusting your water supply).

    Interesting though – here we have Tater products, made from “biodegradable” “planet friendly” potato starch – a few months ago I sent a fork to my father in Christchurch to put in his compost, because I was curious to know if it really was biodegradable and better for the environment than plastic – that was a few months ago and it’s current state is highly unchanged. Doesn’t solve the problem, just gives it a “warm fuzzy feeling” mask. The real trick is to unlearn the overuse of these items and restore the mentality of reusing something (*gasp* REUSE something, I must be insane, lock me away!)

  4. Anne said

    I also am very frustrated about the high use of plastic. The reality is that until the pressure changes manufacturers’ decisions about materials, this situation won’t change. Another question here is, What are the alternatives, and to go along with that, how do we in the U.S. change the “standards” set by the FDA and also state laws about packaging (and whatever similar gov’t programs/laws exist in other countries)? I’d be glad to receive my prescriptions, for instance, in a paper envelope or bring in a bottle, but State laws prohibit that!

  5. […] I was happy to see a greater awareness of plastic packaging and an effort by several local companies to reduce […]

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