The truth about Plastic

I am a scientist and therefore a skeptic by nature. I take everything with a grain of salt and I don’t fall victim to eloquent rhetoric, dramatic photos, or emotional appeals when true substance is lacking. I say this because it is not often that I get so affected by something I’ve only just become aware of. Yesterday on the radio I heard of an online documentary about the legendary Floating Island of Garbage. I always thought it was an urban myth, but apparently these guys went there and documented what they found. I decided to check it out myself, so I went to the website and watched the video. It was a very professional production and the information it revealed was positively shocking.

Toxic Garbage Island: episode 1

(there are 12 episodes in all, but you need only watch the first to get the gist of the message; you will probably end up wanting to see them all)

Garbage Island, aka: the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, is not really an Island in the sense of a cohesive landmass. Instead, it is an area of the North Pacific Ocean that is approximately twice the size of Texas and lies in the centre of a large, circular flow of oceanic currents. These currents pass along the west coast of North America and the East Coast of Asia – picking up untold amounts of garbage and pollutants and drawing the stuff into their centre, an area called the North Pacific Gyre.

In the days before synthetic, non-biodegradeable products were manufactured by the millions, the organic refuse that found its way here represented a source of food to the myriad creatures who inhabit this region. From oceanic scavengers to filter feeders one can imagine the evolution of an entire ecosystem based on the forces of Nature that sweep up the refuse of the sea and deposit it here, in the oceanic version of a landfill. If something is biodegradable then, by definition, something is going to want to eat it. Therefore, so long as the human contribution consisted of natural materials (basically everything up to the last two hundred years) our garbage probably didn’t present too much of a problem to the world’s oceans.

And then along came plastics.

Now, if you are like me you maybe thought that the worst thing about plastic was that it didn’t go away. Bottles and nozzles, hard hats and flowerpots, broom handles and ballpoint pens…I imagined that these items would just remain in their manufactured forms until some time, perhaps centuries from now, when future archeologists would dig it up and wonder at the sheer folly of our disposable culture. But no, the truth is much more frightening than that.

Because you see, it turns out that many plastics are photodegradable. Which means that while floating along on the ocean’s currents exposed to all that sunlight they are broken down into slimy, sticky puddles of plastic taffy that look remarkably like jellyfish to the detriment of sea turtles or basically anything that swims into it, including the jellyfish themselves:

Yet it gets worse… many plastics also degrade into tiny plastic fragments that look somewhat like confetti. The waters of the Gyre are so littered with the stuff that the ratio of plastic particles to plankton is over 6:1 (and in some areas upwards of 1000:1). Just imagine a filter feeder taking a nice mouthful of ocean water and getting ten times more plastic than nutrients in its belly.

I could go on, but watch the video and you’ll come to the same point I’m at now…

…how can we even begin to fix this?

My first thought after watching was “I am NEVER using plastic again!”. But seriously folks, that is not an easy thing to do. The computer I’m typing on right now is made of plastic. My glasses have plastic in the frames. I’m not sure it would even be possible to replace everything in my life that is made with plastic (my car, for example). While I applaud the efforts of bloggers like Fake Plastic Fish and Life Less Plastic the sad reality is that this problem – the toxic plastic garbage wasteland of the North Pacific gyre – is not going to go away because a few of us choose to use stainless steel tupperware or cloth grocery bags. The problem is not only global (want another freaky thought? there are four other oceanic Gyres on Earth…) , but goes to the very nature of our society and its dependence on a material that is non-biodegradable and unmanageable as waste. It’s bad enough that we Westerners created this stuff and then became totally dependent on it, but now we are exporting our disposable plastic lifestyle to countries that lack curbside recycling and waste management facilities.

But even if we were to recycle every piece of plastic manufactured there would still be the issue of garbage (ever seen what happens to the area around a McDonalds restaurant, despite the presence of multiple waste bins?). There’s also those darned nurdles – the tiny plastic pellets that are melted down and then coloured and moulded into the final product – which escape from train cars and truck beds, blowing in the wind like dust, and collecting all over the earth’s surface including the oceans.

I think what needs to happen is we need to make this issue so well-known that people raise enough of a stink about it to prompt some change. People need to start viewing plastic the same way we view non-dolphin friendly tuna. Our society needs to invent/find materials to replace plastic that can be disposed of responsibly and which do not pose such a threat to life on this planet.

In the meantime, I’m going to do my bit by trying to cut all unnecessary plastic out of my life (starting with my shampoo). I have written in the past about being plastic bag free; Google around and you’ll come up with many more suggestions and tips. And if you feel overwhelmed, as I did when I first watched that documentary, just take a deep breath and say to yourself “One step at a time”… Spread the word, and hopefully one day the ecological horror show that is Garbage Island will become simply one more embarrassing episode of human history that we somehow managed to survive without going extinct.

Categories: being green | 19 Comments

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19 thoughts on “The truth about Plastic

  1. You’re right. The plastic in the North Pacific Gyre is not going to go away. That’s the really sad part. But folks like me who are trying our hardest to buy no new plastic are doing what we can at the individual level and then blogging to spread the word to others so we don’t make the problem worse than it already is.

    The plastic problem can be overwhelming. And our efforts might not make any difference in the long run. But if we don’t try, we’re sure to fail.


  2. ruralaspirations

    Hi Beth! I hope I didn’t sound like I thought what you (and others) are doing was useless or unimportant. Your website is an amazing resource, and bloggers like you are at the forefront of this issue, spreading the word – an invaluable contribution! I just wanted to emphasize that we as a society need to work towards getting rid of synthetic plastics altogether. The old “reduce, reuse, recycle” just doesn’t seem to cut it in the face of this issue and its enormity, kwim?

  3. Hi Rural

    I’ve just posted on shampoos & cleaners etc, perhaps you might like to try these options, the recipes are wonderful and my hair feels great.


  4. Pingback: Simple Living and Environmentalism: connected « Rural Aspirations

  5. Pingback: Another step away from plastic « Rural Aspirations

  6. Buckminster Fuller

    We need to SHOW how it COULD BE not how it already is. Show people the better alternative. Plastic is going to be ancient history. Create the alternative for people if you want plastic use to end. But were talking about all humans. Maybe the hemp revolution is the answer to all plastic products. STOP BUYING PLASTIC, and spread the word about a lifestyle absent of all plastic. Fucking outlaw the manufacturing of it, start a grassroots movement march on the government for HEMP and a plastic tax a HUGE plastic TAX that is spent on plastic recovery. What if we took all our plastic to a huge field in AZ or NV to let it biodegrade in the sun. We could create alot of jobs on a massive plastic recovery operation and a new Hemp Industry . Hemp is coming, hemp and rubber are all we need. HUGE plastic tax to reinvest, will cause people to buy the metal or rubber container. READ BUCKMINSTER FULLER it will reorientate you to your natural childish self.

  7. Matthew Schwartz

    I think we are far away from making any large change in the lifestyles of Americans, without any true environmental conservationists in either party. Gore and his movie want you to think you are helping by buying carbon credits, and using biofuels which are made from corn, which strip the land, and use enormous amounts of natural gas to supply the fertilizer. It’s a money making business and truly no one will change unless you hit them in the dollars in cents.

    I think a big step would be to charge the American grocery shopper for using plastic bags. Many countries such as England are already doing this and some have outlawed the use of plastic bags altogether.

    • Marcus Carr

      Here in Australia, there has been a big push to convert consumers to bringing “green-friendly” shopping bags that can be used many times, replacing the flimsy plastic ones. There are several problems with this approach, namely:

      a) the store sells the bags to the consumers, immediately creating a non-environmental interest for the store. They reduce their costs as well as getting free advertising – bad start.

      b) consumers still need something to put in their rubbish bins, so rather than recycle the bags their groceries came in, they have no option but to buy bin liners – the store wins again.

      The bottom line is that the energy used to create the reusable bags is *in excess* of what people would have used had they used the flimsy bags for rubbish. The “green solution” is anything but, yet there is a stigma associated with using flimsy plastic bags that is directly proportional to the smugness exhibited by the “green” shoppers.

      If the stores really want a green solution, they’d go back to giving away the paper bags from years ago. I’d make do with them for rubbish bags, the plastic rush would be slowed, the landfill would be far better off and we’d put to use some of the recyclable paper that currently goes to waste. Downsides?

  8. ruralaspirations

    I think the problem as described in the reply above is the idea that we need plastic bags to line our rubbish bins. We don’t, particularly since most rubbish bins are plastic and therefore easily rinsed out. As for the curbside cans, our district requires that garbage be bagged in large garbage bags. So even if you have a bunch of small waste bagged in grocery store bags, you still need to put it all in one big garbage bag. So I think the argument that people “need” the grocery bags to line their home bins is not a solid one. Not to mention that the cost of manufacturing paper bags (in terms of resources, energy, transport, etc) is substantial (as it is, admittedly, for any consumer product). My method (bring your own bags and don’t line home bins with plastic bags) at least eliminates one source of production (plastic grocery bags) and their waste. Even if the stores do sell reusable bags, there is a limit to how many any one customer needs, and they are reusable saving the use of bags in other areas of use.

  9. Marcus

    It’s easy to solve all of the world’s problems if you allow arguments that inconvenience people – many people could replace their car with public transport, for example. The fact is, the higher the inconvenience, the less traction any solution will get. There are gains that can be made without inconvenience and while they may be moderate, they’re achievable on a far wider scale. I would use paper bags, but I wouldn’t wash my rubbish bin every time I emptied it, particularly in a drought-stricken country like Australia where we have water restrictions in place.

    Additionally, only a third of paper collected for recycling here ever gets used – the rest ends up in landfill. While there is a cost to producing them, brown paper bags can presumably be produced at a reasonably low environmental cost, particularly given that the raw material is free and bountiful.

    I admire your approach (bring your own bags and don’t line home bins with plastic bags), but you’re never going to get widespread adoption. It’s not that people just haven thought of it, it’s that the cost exceeds their care factor. Sad, but true.

  10. Marius (USA)

    And what happens to tons of plastic that is used in hospitals and clinics, where disposable supplies are the norm? I am a student nurse and I have not seen any recycling indications on any of the tubes, syringes, bags, and containers that they are teaching me about. The additional problem here is that this plastic is biohazard because of contamination with pathogens and cannot be put into regular recycling containers. So, does anyone here know what happens to this stuff?

  11. ruralaspirations

    Yes, hospital plastics use is a big problem. Disposability is definitely a plus when it comes to managing contamination, but not so good for the environment. Right now I believe the stuff is incinerated, which is awful b/c of the substances released in that process. In this case, I think someone is going to have to come up with a major technological revolution and find a replacement for hospital plastics that is somehow recyclable.

  12. Drm

    This is just amazing! I think educators in general throughout the world have a great deal of influence over students. The same is true of parents and government officials. International governments and world- wide organizations need to create environmentally friendly policies encourage the science to recover all these materials and create a super strong building material so that all government buildings, schools, public buildings of all kinds all over the world are made of this materials. It would be an inexpensive way to create jobs and reinforce infrastuctures ofm public places. We would all have to pitch in through tax revenue. That is my two cents worth!

  13. Krystal

    Thank you for taking the time to research this subject and submit this piece!! I agree with everything you brought up. I work as a cashier for a grocery store and I feel tremendous guilt when i am forced to use plastic. For several weeks I would use only paper, but then my boss came down on me because it costs more or some bull like that. Now, when someone brings in their own bags, I thank them “as a fellow human” for doing so. I am hoping it will encourage them to remember their bags next time. We can only hope that we ALL do something before its too late.
    PS…shamefully, I am that person you described in the beginning of your blog

  14. Ted Johnson

    Thank you for your website. I wish this plastic trash problem in our oceans was well-known to the public. However, I don’t think there is any problem with plastic. The problem is with its disposal. If our trash truly were contained on land, then there would be no problem. However, when you read about large container ships spilling cargo into the oceans, or the transportation of plastic pellets to foreign countries that end up also being lost at sea, I don’t see how we can fix this problem without coming up with an alternative to plastic. But don’t forget the world worked without plastic till the 1950s, and I too would like to see a world without plastic.

  15. Hello,
    In response to this GPGP: Great Pacific Garbage Patch, I have created an Org. called SAFFF: Social Awareness Fashion Film Festival. I couldnt believe that this has become such an overwhelming issue that we now have to figure out how to solve. Why didnt I know about this before it got so out of hand? I will tell you why, its been under wraps and hidden from the public eye. That is what SAFFF is going to do, the fashion and film festival portion is to raise money so that I can head a group of individuals who will travel and document these issues that need awareness brought to the people about. Please go to my website and let me know if you have any questions or any thoughts of how I can help SAFFF grow, etc. If everyone made 1 little change it would add up to a BIG difference!! We can save our planet as long as we all work together.

  16. Michael O

    I’m all for reducing the use of plastics and at the very least disposing of such properly. And no question about that every single person needs to be informed about this and pitch in.

    Still, by the time we significantly slow down the accumulation of plastics in these patches by spreading the word, billions of tons of plastic, much of which is ALREADY slowly on its way, will add to the present amount to make these patches even denser. And it will probably disperse also.

    There’s no getting around this, IMO. This mess needs to be cleaned up somehow. This requires a worldwide organized effort that probably only the government can pull off.

    What’s going on on this front? Is our government looking into this or is it, as usual, only looking at emergency situations like the oil spill in the MG?

    • Feather Mask

      This is my first time reading about this or hearing about this. I watched the whole documentary. You were right, after seeing the first part, I wanted to watch the rest. I am by no means an uneducated or stupid person, I try to be socially aware… but I have never heard of this. In a way, I feel duped. Why would this not be common knowledge? This only means one thing in my eyes, and it is that our media and world government is intentionally hiding the facts. That may sound like some conspiracy crap to you, but I don’t see how such an enormous and dangerous problem can be so unknown. This is being intentionally kept from us. I’m disturbed by what is happening to the world. We have the problem of petrol pollution which poses a real threat, and instead of the world moving forward and trying to adopt some of the real solutions, corporations are forcing us to stay using the same methods just so they can make millions. We have this problem with plastic pollution, and we aren’t utilizing what we already know. Humans are the most intelligent beings on Earth. We have brought ourselves this far and I don’t believe for a second that this problem was brought on about our own stupidity. No, this is brought on by greed. We already have solutions. Many things made from plastic can be made from vegtable oil. The government could outlaw plastic bags. There are plenty of biodegradable materials we already know how to use, but for “some reason,” we’re not using them. I call bull. Complete bull. This is about industry and money, and a handfull of jackasses are literally killing people and literally destroying our planet so they can make money. I definitely have a changed outlook. I am 25, I don’t have kids, but I will one day, and this genuinely and truly makes me so scared for them. I know I’m going to find my own ways to stop using plastics. It sucks because it shouldn’t have to inconvenience us as consumers. It should be up to the companies to produce responsible products. I look over at the table in my room, and I see a plastic Mary Kay bottle of body spray and it makes me realize how ingrained plastic is into our lives. Now I have to buy the more expensive perfumes that come in bottles. I realize how shallow that sounds, but think about how many people don’t even know or care about what could happen to that bottle. Plastic is everywhere, and it does suck not being able to get what you want because you know that what it comes in will hurt people. I’m pretty pissed. Sorry for being long winded.

  17. Ed Reynolds

    Anything is possible. Enough people are becoming aware of the greed based disposable culture we have become. Change is kinda quiet about itself. Using strait razor instead of disposable. Shaving mug, brush and soap. Home water filtering or refill 5 gal jugs 4 home dispenser. Reusing stuff. Though I get billed for a month of weekly Trash pick-up, I only put my can out once a month. When we go into town we take glass, metal and (yes) whatever plastic that has crept into our life, to recycle. Makes one feel better to do the right thing.

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