Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Elizabeth Mirsky: The Dormant Killer -- Plastic's Dirty Little Secret

(A student paper)

Elizabeth Mirsky
Professor Benton
English 102 J022
17 April 2012

The Dormant Killer: Plastic’s Dirty Little Secret

In 1997, a Californian sailor, surfer, environmentalist, and retired furniture restorer accidentally came across a sleeping giant lurking in the center of the Pacific Ocean—the dormant, swirling vortex of plastic waste was no longer hidden or asleep. On his way home from a catamaran boat race in Honolulu, Hawaii, Captain Charles Moore discovered what he named the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (Grant 22). Unbeknownst to the average American citizen, or most other human beings on the planet, our oceans were being invaded by an ever-increasing mass of plastic waste; the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is not the only trash gyre which exists, four more can be located in the North and South Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian Oceans. But where did all of this plastic come from? What are its impacts on the environment, marine life, and us? Is there anything we can do about it? These are all questions which I will answer in an attempt to touch the hearts of anyone who cares about not only our oceans or our environment, but about the life of our planet. Over 315 billion pounds of plastic float in almost every ocean and hardly anyone knows about it (Huff 108). After realizing these startling facts about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and its fatal impacts on marine life and the environment, it is up to us to decide whether we want to save our planet or watch it die.

First off, why do we not know that all of this plastic waste exists in the oceans, especially the giant mass in the Pacific? Researchers say that this is because of a lack of satellite footage—in other words, because the plastic is not an island of solid waste but is actually a wide area of scattered, miniature pieces of plastic, it cannot be seen on satellite (Kershaw et al. 24). In last year’s United Nations Environment Program’s (UNEP) year book, the plastic waste issue was the prominent news story. This is evidence that the plastic does truly exist but has just not been exposed as of yet—Mickey Huff, the director of Project Censored, gives a reason for this censorship. In Censored 2012, Huff explains that “the corporate media blocks all hope of stemming the tide of plastics and other refuse going into our waterways and into the gyres” (108). Because of the censorship of the corporate media, the only channels which this news story can use for exposure are independent news networks—but how many of us daily watch or hear those? A great example of this lack of coverage can be seen in Richard Grant’s shocking quote of David de Rothschild, the founder of an expedition group raising awareness of various environmental issues, Adventure Ecology. Rothschild says, “…the annual budget for the United Nations Environment Program [UNEP] last year was $190 million. And the budget for the latest James Bond movie was $205 million” (qtd. in Grant 34). This is why we don’t know (or have chosen to ignore) the truth about the plastic gyres in our Pacific Ocean. Mixed with the fact that we don’t have a clear satellite picture of the mass of plastic, people are either uninformed or chose to not believe what they hear around them due to a lack of evidence—this should come as an eye-opener.

Out in the Pacific Ocean, in an area called the doldrums, decades of carelessness have formed the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. As mentioned before, it is not a solid patch of debris, but is more of a “marine soup” of floating plastic particles. Capt. Moore uses the term “nurdle” to describe these tiny plastic pellets of raw resin which are formed through photo-degradation by the sun of larger plastic waste. Because plastic can never biodegrade, it is up to the sun to disintegrate plastic waste in the ocean—this is a very drawn out process, as can be seen by plastic waste found in the ocean from the 1940s (Moore 86). These nurdles are also produced in factories and shipped out to various companies in order to be blown into various plastics (bottles, bags, containers, etc.). Every plastic item ever made is still out there somewhere. The non-biodegradability of plastic can be explained by looking back through history. After World War II had been fought, an epic shift from frugality to abundance occurred in the minds of most high-income countries. This became the era of comfort and entertainment—a big part of which called for the creation of the super-tough plastic which would never break and could be used for almost anything (Moore 96). But no one thought about what effects this mass use of plastic could possibly have on the environment, how it would never go away, or how it would continue to build up until something had to give. The combination of the industrial use of nurdles and the shift to plastic-crazy mindsets is what caused most of the plastic in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch to accumulate—all that it took was the converging, swirling currents of the Pacific Ocean to bring most of it all to one place.

But at this point, we still did not know the true extent of plastic in the Pacific Ocean. Capt. Charles Moore went on more than eight large expeditions to the Pacific Ocean to experiment with the abundance of plastic over the course of ten years. On his ship, Alguita, Capt. Moore, with the help of Marcus Erikson (the co-founder of 5 Gyres Institute), brought along five large nets, called trawls, with which he would trap plastic particles in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch on his expeditions (Moore 200). What they discovered was horriffying. The ratio of plastic particles to naturally abounding plankton was 6:1—that is, for every plankton a fish might pick up to eat, it would also eat six pieces of plastic. Moore and Erikson also discovered that over 46,000 pieces of plastic float in the Pacific Ocean per every square kilometer (Grant 30). With the help of several researchers, scientists, and writers, Moore was able to publish a scientific paper which would make their research known. They also found that 90-95% of all waste in the ocean was plastic and that the swirling mass was twice the size of Texas (de Rothschild 22). The true horror was discovered when scientists began to study the plastics’ impacts on marine life.

The clearest example of the awful effects of plastic ingestion by marine animals is the case of the Laysan albatross. These giant, beautiful birds live exclusively on Midway Island, 2,800 miles off the coast of California. Thousands of albatross chicks are dying every year from eating pieces of plastic that their parents accidentally regurgitate back to them as food. UNEP found that plastic is killing a million seabirds a year and 100,000 marine mammals and turtles. The most common causes for death are entanglement, suffocation, and what Grant calls “fatal constipation” (25). Moore also discovered that an average of 46 pieces of plastic was being found in albatross chicks’ carcasses—these range from nurdles, to toothbrushes, to plastic bags, to cigarette lighters. The UNEP year book points out that the most common plastic in the oceans are cigarettes, and a close second is plastic bags (31). But this plastic also kills by a more silent method, one that doesn’t involve the last yelps of a suffocating baby bird or the starvation of its mom because she just can’t fit anything else into her stomach: toxicity. Nurdles become toxic after an accumulation of chemical poisons occurs from the waters; they, among other plastics, are known to absorb any matter they come in contact with, even pollutants which are Persistent, Bioaccumulative and Toxic (PBTs). These micro PBTs are then ingested by phytoplankton, which are ingested by zooplankton, which are ingested by small fish, later ingested by turtles, dolphins, and whales (Moore 252). Who or what is it that eats fish, sometimes even whales? Human beings. We are now discovering that these plastic pollutants climb through the food chain until they ultimately end up on our plates. So that plastic bag we used to bring our groceries home last night and carelessly threw in the street might just be our dinner one month from now.

I still haven’t explained exactly how plastic waste ends up in our oceans; it only takes one word—carelessness. In Censored 2012, Huff entitles the chapter on Pacific Ocean waste “Did You Really Think Your Plastic was being Recycled?” (107) This direct statement sums up where most of the plastic came from; the Ecology Center clears up seven misconceptions about plastic recycling. These include the fact that 1) many plastics which go into curbside bins blow away and never get recycled, 2) the same amount of trash is still being sent to landfills (if not more), 3) every plastic container has the chasing arrows recycling symbol on it, but most are not even recyclable, and 4) packaging resins waste energy which could be used for other sources (“Seven Misconceptions about Plastic and Plastic Recycling”). In the end, it turns out that recycling (the little which does occur) uses up more energy than it saves and is hardly ever done properly. Katherine Mieszkowski, a senior writer for Salon, reveals that plastic items (especially plastic bags) are collected at the recycling plant and are then trucked to the regular dump (133). Aside from these major recycling issues, peoples’ carelessness at tossing trash and litter out onto the streets is astonishing—I guess they think that it will just go away and won’t end up somewhere important, maybe like the ocean. Mieszkowski also states that every year Americans throw away over 100 billion plastic bags after they’ve been used just once—even more are yearly produced for customer convenience. Capt. Moore remembers a specific incident during one of his expeditions in which he and his team spotted 50 plastic bags in a 3-mile radius after a major bag spill had just occurred—but these sorts of spills are kept quiet, no hears of a massive plastic bag spill in the Pacific Ocean (Moore 167). Aside from large plastic waste, Moore also explains that nurdles come from careless plastic company employees who drop thousands of them during transportation (55).

Now that we know how most of the plastic waste reaches the Pacific Ocean, what can we do about it? David de Rothschild has set a great example of plastic innovation through his “Message on a Bottle” project. He and a very skilled team of architects built the Plastiki, a boat made up of 12,500 plastic bottles in order to inspire a change in how people view waste and to integrate it back into the web of life. He hopes to be the face of a new movement which instills smart ways to design and reuse everyday materials. De Rothschild took the plastic bottle and made it a symbol of hope, creativity, and innovation (24). Marcus Erikson has also gone to great lengths to encourage people to make a change. Through his website, 5 Gyres, he gives people an opportunity to participate in upcoming expeditions to the plastic gyres in the oceans and he also daily updates information on his own progress. He also provides us with five possible solutions to this major problem; reduction of plastic materials used, action to conserve and recycle, legislation of laws which require caring for where our trash goes, innovation and creativity on how to reuse plastic, and recovery of plastics throughout cities. Huff explains that once the plastic reaches the sea, there is no way to recover it without killing necessary plankton abundant in the oceans. The only way we can stop this devastation is by preventing further global garbage pollution by not throwing away plastics and cleaning up waterways and beaches before the plastics reach the sea (108).

Thanks to the courage and persistence of researchers like Capt. Charles Moore, Marcus Erikson, and David de Rothschild, we now know what lies out there in the middle of the Pacific Ocean (and every other ocean, as a matter of fact). We can now work to make a change—but that is all up to us. Moore shows that if we continue to carelessly pollute the oceans, ratios of plastic to wildlife will continue to drastically decrease—his experiments conclude that in 1999, the ratio of plastic to plankton was 6:1, and that less than a decade later, this ratio is as large as 49:1 (238). Those few environmentally-friendly people who are using recycled bags when they go grocery shopping are not enough to reverse this catastrophe; we all have to stop using plastic bags and the sooner the better. Plastic bottles are another problem; many people think that it takes more energy to produce glass bottles than plastic. This idea is wrong—glass takes less energy, is biodegradable, and is recyclable, unlike plastic. If we can just start with little changes such as these, we can begin a movement of change for the better. How is it possible that we have dumped 315 billion pounds of plastic and don’t even realize it? Did we think it would just go away if we threw it out of our homes and out of our sight? Well, we now know that it doesn’t and that we have left such a large plastic footprint behind, that it is almost too late to turn around and erase it (Moore 292). Almost. Let’s choose to save our planet and provide life for tens of generations to come, instead of watching our quality of life and the environment continually decrease without end. The “killer plastic” is no longer dormant, but is benign—time to send in the cavalry.

Works Cited

"5 Gyres - Understanding Plastic Pollution Through Exploration, Education, and Action." 5 Gyres. 2012 5 Gyres Institute, 2012. 02 Apr. 2012.

De Rothschild, David. "Message on a Bottle." The Plastiki. UNEP Our Planet Chemicals, 2010. 02 Apr. 2012.

Grant, Richard. "The World's Oceans Are Filling with Plastic." Garbage and Recycling. Ed. Candice Mancini. Detroit: Greenhaven, 2011. 21-34.

Huff, Mickey. "Project Censored News Clusters and the Top Censored Stories of 2010 and 2011." Censored 2012: Sourcebook for the Media Revolution: The Top Censored Stories and Media Analysis of 2010-2011. New York: Seven Stories, 2011. 98-117.

Kershaw, Peter, Saido Katsuhiko, Sangjin Lee, Jon Samseth, and Doug Woodring. "Plastic Debris in the Ocean." UNEP Year Book 2011: Emerging Issues in Our Global Environment. Nairobi, Kenya: United Nations Environment Programme, 2011. 20-33.

United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) (2011).

Mieszkowski, Katharine. "In the United States and Around the World, Plastic Bags Must Go." Garbage and Recycling. Ed. Candice Mancini. Detroit: Greenhaven, 2011. 128-38.

Moore, Charles, and Cassandra Phillips. Plastic Ocean: How a Sea Captain's Chance Discovery Launched a Determined Quest to save the Oceans. New York: Avery, 2011.

"Seven Misconceptions about Plastic and Plastic Recycling." Ecology Center (Accessed: April 2, 2012).

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