Take Two # 111: Let’s talk plastic - Part 2

By Kyra-lin Hom

Welcome back. Last week I gave a brief summary of our use and misuse of the infamous material known as plastic. I mentioned that the US produces over 30 million tons a year (2/3 of which is essentially single-use) yet only recycles 7.7%. I further illustrated how plastic is often swept out to sea and how ocean currents create giant patches of floating plastic trash in naturally ocurring convergent zones called ‘gyres.’ There are 5 major gyres in the world, one of which sits about 1,000 miles off of our coastline in the Pacific Ocean.

So why don’t we hear more about these giant plastic trash islands? If the problem is so exteme, why aren’t more people (and the Internet) up in arms?

The answer is visibility. I hear giant floating trash island and I expect pictures. You know how children’s charities show you disturbing images of starving children? I want ocean trash equivalents of those. Unfortunately I’m not going to get them. Thus people (myself included) initially think the issue can’t be all that bad. Wrong.

There are 3 main reasons these pictures don’t exist. One, these gyres are enormous. Our Northern Pacific Gyre alone is 7.7 million square miles! This much area can disperse a staggering amount of trash. Two, plastic photodegrades. In the ocean, this means that sunlight weakens the plastic and turns it brittle. Then waves break it down into smaller and smaller pieces that can’t be seen from far away. Three, the plastic that is large enough to see at a distance usually floats a few feet beneath the water’s surface and so can’t be seen from above.

I know what you’re thinking: Wait, if plastic photodegrades won’t it eventually go away just like biodegradable material? Unfortunately no, just because the plastic goes from one big piece to hundreds of little pieces doesn’t mean it’s going away – that takes 400 to 1,000 years. Instead, this just turns the colorfully alluring plastic into perfect bite-size pieces for birds and fish alike.

Specifically studied is the laysan albatross. Conservationists are frequently finding these birds (both adults and chicks) dead and dying of starvation with bellies full of unpassable plastic.

Fish commonly eat these plastic particles along with their diet as well, surviving but absorbing harmful chemicals along the way. These chemicals work their way up the foodchain in higher and higer concentrations in a process called biomagnification. Guess who are at the top? Us. A town in Japan recently reported an epidemic of miscarriages tracing back to these chemicals. And nearly everyone tested in Europe and Asia has the toxic chemicals used in making polycarbonate plastic in their body.

What do we do about this? Nearly all environmentalists agree the problem is too big to clean up. Plastic is being rapidly adopted by all kinds of industries for economic reasons. Hospitals and clinics especially are now replacing metal instruments with single-use plastic (plastic can’t be sterilized) because it’s cheaper to throw away than to sterilize the metal. Plus because national territory generally ends at about 200 miles off the coast, no country is taking responsibility for this oceanic problem.

First off, we need to make it clear to the bigwigs that we care. Consumer and voter power is important. Economic sanctions could be put in place to punish frivilous plastic waste, making sustainable options more profitable.

Second, we need a new polymer. Currently, there is no such thing as a true biodegradable industrial plastic – those that claim to be are stretching the definition quite a bit. But Stanford University is changing that. They’re creating a completely sustainable, biodegradable and non-toxic plastic using methane-eating bacteria. Now why isn’t this a major field of research? Something like this could solve everything.

But for the rest of us, the most important thing we can do is to be aware and spread the word.

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