Take Two # 110: Let’s Talk Plastic Part 1

By Kyra-lin Hom

Let’s take a break from the recent film binge and talk about something we all use every single day. No, I’ll go further and say this is something we use nearly every single hour of every day. In 2010, the world produced 330 million tons of it. In 2011, the US alone produced 32 million tons. It can be soft or sturdy, clear or transparent. And it can survive relatively intact for up to 400 to 1,000 years. That’s right, let’s talk about plastic.

In 2011, of that 32 million tons produced in the US, 7 million were what is called “nondurable goods.” These are products destined for single-use such as plastic spoons and those infamous red party cups. 14 million tons were dedicated as containers and packaging materials like your yogurt cups, Barbie doll packaging or ready-to-eat food wrappers. That means that 66% of the plastic produced was made to be used once and then thrown away.

This is a nearly indestructable manmade polymer being used for single-use products. Yeah, think about that one.

But that’s still vaguely okay because we recycle most plastic, don’t we? Hardly. The US recycles only 7.7% of its plastic waste. Of that 32 million tons I mentioned, 29.5 million ended up in the trash bin. And that 7.7% rate is declining. Despite all the pro-environmental awareness movements, all of these numbers are only getting worse. And none of these .gov statistics include the plastic used in automobiles. Those are recorded separately.

The rates of production vs. recycling vary around the world, but no matter how you fudge the data, globally things aren’t looking good. So what happens to all that plastic? Some ends up in landfills, some falls off the wagon and gets ground under foot and tire, and some ends up in the water.

In developed nations this journey to the water generally begins with a bump in the road knocking trash loose and ends with being washed out to sea in a storm drain. In less developed nations this journey is a much quicker walk to the local dumping ground – i.e. the local source of running water. The current drags the trash downstream and into someone else’s problem. Either way, this marinification of our trash happens in large quantities the world over. Where does it go then?

Though predicted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in 1988, it wasn’t until 1997 that Captain Charles J. Moore discovered the first of several giant, floating plastic islands. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch (also called the Eastern Pacific Garbage Patch) occurs in a convergence of currents 1,000 miles off the coast of California officially known as the North Pacfic Gyre. Ocean currents drive debris into this zone and keep it there. This is where our trash ends up. Northwest, say hello to your baby.

When I first heard about this garbage island, estimated to be twice the size of Texas, I expected the Internet to be rife with aerial footage of giant masses of floating water bottles, PVC pipes, etc. I – like you probably do – expected for such a catastrophic trash problem to be visible. But that’s not the case. Instead, the problem is much harder to see and much worse for the environment.

Why? I’ll tell you next week. Tune back in to learn why, especially us ocean coasters, can never truly throw anything ‘away.’

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