Waves of Plastic
We live on waves. We live on waves of information, waves of economy, waves of plastic, and waves of change. With all of these waves of information coming at us daily from every direction it is easy to become distracted and discouraged or simply confused, but we can’t give up.
There have been waves of publicity and raising awareness of environmental concerns. Al Gore’s documentary “An Inconvenient Truth” made a dramatic splash two years ago when he discussed the possibly devastating effects of global warming. While some have tried to discredit his claims, the momentum of environmentally conscious living has prevailed. Since then, many of the commercial marketplaces have picked up the popular trend of living green. Companies like Walmart, Apple, Ford and Honda have revamped their marketing strategies to meet a change in public awareness and concern for environmental issues.
The Real Issue
Although many environmentalists have chatted up global warming, it isn’t the only issue that we should be concerned about. There is another issue that is just as alarming and much more evident and undeniable - plastic waste.
Have you ever wondered how the world and society began its dependence on plastic? This “wonder material” was introduced and heavily marketed by Du Pont, after World War I.
During the War, Du Pont had become known for developing explosives. After the war was over, the company had to find new uses for their nitrate plants to keep their factories running. They acquired licenses and bought up companies that were developing cellulous-based chemicals. They promoted their acquired plastics as the material of the future.
In the book American Plastic by Jeffrey L. Meikle, we learn how plastic became the most widely used and most readily available material of the post war era. We read some of Du Pont’s marketing strategy, “Designed with stylized art, and modern graphics depicting chemists, resorts, microscopes, and factories, the booklet wrongly called Pyralin a new material, a ‘modern industrial plastic.’ Purportedly answering demands from “forward-looking manufacturers” for a material “ready adaptable to all sorts of mechanical processes.”(p 27). Du Pont fabricated a need for their material where no need was realized before. A wave of plastic industry began. Now Plastics are used in all kinds of products, from shoes to appliances.
Plastic is so readily available and inexpensive to make that it has become the staple for American consumables and packaging. It has helped create a culture of disposables. What would we do without Disposable diapers, disposable plates cups, and utensils? What about disposable cameras, or disposable Tupperware?
So, What is the Big Deal?
In an article titled “Plastic Pollution And The Plight Of The Planet”, Genevieve Johnson, Odyssey Education Director & Marine Coordinator discusses why plastic is so devastating to so much of the environment.
The problem with plastics is they do not biodegrade. When something biodegrades, naturally occurring organisms break down natural materials into their simple chemical components. For example, when paper breaks down it becomes carbon dioxide and water. However, plastic is a synthetic material and never biodegrades. Instead it undergoes a process called 'photodegredation', whereby sunlight breaks it down into smaller and smaller pieces over very long periods of time. A disposable diaper takes an estimated 500 years to break down while plastic 6-pack rings for cans take 400 years and a plastic water bottle can take up to 450 years to degrade. However, this does not mean they will disappear, all remain as plastic polymers and eventually yield individual molecules of plastic too tough for any organism to digest
When Plastics break down into smaller pieces of plastic, they become more toxic. They are contaminating our soil and waterways.
Hundreds of thousands of animals die each year because of plastic ingestion. Mrs. Johnson explains her encounters at sea, “When I reflect on our time researching at sea over the past five years, two unrelated things stand out - sperm whales and plastics. We are not always assured of finding sperm whales. However, even in the most remote regions of the ocean, plastics are guaranteed. Unfortunately, the relationship between plastics and all marine life is far more intricate than most of us could possibly imagine.” (Johnson).
Another article written by Marlene A. Affeld on August 20, 2008 said, “A recent study concluded that in excess of 100,000 marine mammals die needlessly each year from the deadly effects of plastic pollution. World-wide over 100 bird species are known to ingest plastic particles. This includes 36 species found off the coast of South Africa. A recent study of blue petrel hatchlings at South Africa's remote Marion Island showed that 90% of the hatchlings examined had plastic in their digestive systems, apparently fed to them accidentally by their parents.” (Marlene).
The Sea of Plastic
Have you ever wondered what happens to all the plastic? Most people have probably never heard of the Gyre. It is the planet’s largest garbage dump. It is a veritable sea of plastic the size of Texas that is polluting the Pacific Ocean. Project Planet describes that, “The North Pacific Gyre is a natural low pressure zone that extends from Hawaii to Alaska, the currents slowly churn this massive area (about the size of Texas)”(project Planet). Much of the garbage from the beginning of the plastic era to now makes its way to this region of the Pacific or to other Gyres through currents in the oceans, lakes and rivers. The thing is, this was never meant to be a dump.
Planet Protect has a website dedicated to public awareness of environmental issues. They speak of this growing mass of floating debris in the North Pacific Gyre, “just about anything that floats into the Gyre stays there – for decades. Remember when Nike lost just about 80,000 shoes in the Pacific some years back – most are still in the Gyre. Taco Bell lost about 50,000 plastic bags off a ship from China – most are still in the Gyre.”(Project Planet).
Millions of tons of plastic garbage float along the currents of the oceans. The article gives voice to the feelings of many people that know about the tragedy of one of Earth’s most precious resources, our water as well as the multitude of animals and plants that depend on it. It says, “It’s distressing to read that a majority of sea birds, seals, dolphins, whales and turtles have some amount of plastic in their stomachs. Its alarming to read that the breakdown of plastics is affecting the food chain, and (what’s more) plastic absorbs toxins which are making their way into our food.”(Project Planet).
The Planet is being contaminated with plastic. Nature cannot avoid it. There are new synthetic chemicals in the environment because of plastic. Plastic molecules cannot be broken down any further by any natural means. So these broken down plastics and plastic molecules mix with the water and the environment. These particles are ingested by many species of birds and fish. They are making their way into the food chain.
One eye-opening article in the October 2008 issue of Health & Wellness claims that, “The tiny particles of plastic that make their way through the digestive tract become embedded in the tissue of dead animals.”(Lewis). Animals that feed on these contaminated carcasses would then be ingesting plastic particles. This has brought up concerns about eating fish and other seafood’s and the effect these plastic contaminants might have on humans.
The article covers recent research done by Scientists and environmentalists. Captain Moore said that, “The base of the food chain is being displaced by a non-digestible, non-nutritive component which is actually outweighing and outnumbering the natural food.”(Lewis). Niel Seldman of the institute of Local Self Reliance claims that, “plastic is a bigger danger than global warming because it is killing the lowest common denominator in the food chain.”(Lewis).
If nothing is done to stop the waste of Plastic, It will reach more and more toxic levels. As mentioned in several articles, “Every bit of plastic that has been made is likely to be with us right now.” (Lewis). How much plastic does it take to reach toxic levels? We don’t want to find out the hard way.
What Can be Done
We can become easily overwhelmed when faced with such large problems and feel like there is not much we can do about it. If industry can make it easier for me to be green, that is wonderful. But the industry won’t stop using plastic for consumables and disposables unless people take action. We can recycle, but recycling depends on the marketability of the recycled product. Because plastics are so inexpensive to make, it costs more to recycle plastic than other recyclables. And only certain plastics are accepted at recycling bins. What’s more, dropping off your empty plastic bottles at a recycling transfer station is not a guarantee that they will be recycled. As little as 60 percent of plastics dropped off actually get recycled.
An article in the Seattle Times stated that, “Nationally, less than 6 percent of all waste plastic gets recycled, compared with recycling rates of 50 percent for paper, 37 percent for metals and 22 percent for glass” (Watson). We need to work to become plastic waste-free as a society. It starts with each of us.
I have bought those reusable cloth shopping bags to use when we go grocery shopping. They are becoming more and more popular as more people learn about the devastating effects of plastic waste.
Organizations like Planet protect have bean formed by concerned activists to raise public awareness. They also raise funds to organize cleanup projects. They are talking with representatives and plan on going to Washington D.C. to address the issue and to try and come up with solutions to this growing problem.
We can participate in supporting these environmental organizations. We can take an active part in learning about the issues of plastic and the environment. We can learn about the steps that are being taken to protect the environment, and our planet. The more we know about the issues, the more we can do. We must keep the wave of information moving forward.
Plastic Pollution Research
Johnson, Genevieve Sailing on a sea of Plastic 2005. Online. PBS. Internet http://www.pbs.org/odyssey/odyssey/20050428_log_transcript.html
Lewis, Sarah Health Issues: Plastics in the Food Chain 2008. Onine. Associated Content. Internet http://www.associatedcontent.com/article/1100366/health_issues_plastics_ in_the_food.html?cat=5
Marlene A. Affeld Plastic Pollution And The Plight Of The Planet 2008. Online. Genistra.com. Internet http://www.genistra.com/2008/08/plastic-pollution- and-the-plig.html
Meikle, Jeffrey L. American Plastic New Brunwick NJ. Rudgers University Press. 1996
Putatunda, Rita Environmental Pollution: The Harmful Effects of Plastic Bags 2008. Online. Buzzle.com. Internet http://www.buzzle.com/articles/environmental-pollution-the-harmful- effects-of-plastic-bags.html
Where can we put all those plastics? 2007 The Seattle Times. Internet http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/homegarden/2003730398_ecocons umer02.html
Online. Planet Protect. Internet http://www.planetprotect.com