Near the beginning of the 1968 film “The Graduate,” Dustin Hoffman, the main character, is at a graduation party given by his parents. A family friend pulls him aside and says, “I’ve got just one word for the graduate — plastics!” By the 1960s plastic was the wonder of the age; cheap to manufacture, durable, and immune from rust and corrosion. What seemed fifty years ago like a perfect solution for a consumer society, has become the problem. A very serious problem.
What is plastic? It’s the bastard child of the petroleum industry. Technically, plastics are polymers, extremely intricate chains of synthetic molecules, mostly hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, and chlorine. None of these molecules are found in nature, and they are too new for microbes to have evolved to “eat” them, so plastic never really biodegrades. It just keeps breaking down into tinier and tinier bits, until today it can be found in the cells of phytoplankton in the oceans.
Charles Moore is a surfer, sailor, and head of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation. In 1997 he’d just finished competing in the Trans Pacific Yacht Race from Los Angeles to Hawaii. He thought he’d sail home by a different course, heading North. He soon found himself amidst a floating “sea” of trash, mostly plastic, as far as the eye could see. Grocery bags, bottle caps, toys, water and soda bottles, rings from six packs, shrink wrap, old fishing nets, the stuff was everywhere. At the time he had neither the proper boat nor equipment for further investigation, but he returned two years later.
He’d rigged a one-half inch mesh net and dragged it between the pontoons of his catamaran, to see how deep it was — about three feet. After taking a week to sail across the expanse, he estimated it to be about the size of Texas. That was in 1999; today it’s bigger than the Sahara Desert. It’s called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and it lies in an accumulation zone where debris is trapped by currents, known as the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre. And it’s only one of seven such gyres, albeit the largest. How did all this plastic get there? Because everything runs downhill. Plastic is lightweight and easily windblown. What doesn’t get covered by landfill eventually makes its way downstream to the ocean. Sure, maybe some ships dump trash overboard, but not enough to explain an island continent. Marine researchers calculate that there’s between six and ten times as much plastic trash in the oceans as phytoplankton (which makes most of the planet’s oxygen). When I said the problem was serious, I meant just that.
Do you know what nurdles are? They’re how most plastic is made, rabbit-poop sized pellets of various colors melted down and poured into forms. It’s thought that nurdles make up as much as 10% of ocean trash. They are about the size of fish eggs, so they get eaten by other aquatic life. Grocery bags look like jellyfish, and get eaten, too. Rings from six packs, fishing nets and lines, all take a big toll on creatures unfortunate enough to get entangled in them. Ingested plastic clogs up digestive tracts, leading to the agonizing deaths of countless fish and birds. One study of sea gulls found an average of 44 pieces of plastic in their stomachs. Another examined 671 small fish, finding a total of 1391 pieces.
In 1976 I traveled in England, France and Italy. When people there went to the market or other stores, they brought their own bags. They were fabric, or a net mesh of some kind. I don’t recall seeing any plastic bags at all, for produce or anything else. Here in America, fabric bags are getting more common, but I still see people with shopping carts of ten or twenty full plastic bags. In his book The Bag Beast, Michael Jessen writes that Americans use 60,000 of these plastic bags every five minutes, and I can believe it.
Plastic is saturating the global environment, and the United States is certainly doing our part. We produce 300 billion pounds of plastic annually. That’s Billion. I’d hate to imagine how much China and India turn out. Let me remind you that plastic doesn’t ever go away, it just keeps breaking down into smaller pieces, to the microscopic level. It’s in everything now, including us, where it lodges in our tissues. It’s in virtually every mother’s milk, too. That’s bad enough, but the chemical soup that comes with plastic is the real danger.
BPA (bisphenol A) and phthalates are used to soften plastic, make it more pliable. That’s what you’re inhaling in that “new car smell.” I wrote about them in “The Phthalate, Great, American Male” (see archives). PBDEs, or polybrominated diphenyl ethers, are flame retardants, and are used in furniture, electronics, textiles, and synthetic carpeting. These substances have a very nasty effect on the body’s hormonal system. They’re mistaken for the female hormone estrogen, and are thus known as endocrine disruptors. Marine biologists are seeing the results in birds, fish, and amphibians — malformation of sexual organs, and even the sprouting of female sex organs in males. There are numerous studies on exposure to endocrine disruptors in humans, specifically, irreversible damage to the reproductive organs of unborn babies.
Our beaches are being transformed, too. There are already several where on top of the sand are a dust of tiny plastic pieces, and this will only worsen.
We are a disposable society. Even razors and cameras are made to be used, then thrown away. It’s cheaper to buy another pair of shoes than it is to have them repaired, if you can still find a shoe repair shop. Hell, it’s gotten to the point of individually wrapped toothpicks. This is ridiculous. The only solution I can see is a complete reversal of our attitude to everything around us. I told you earlier about my travels in Europe, and seeing little, if any, plastic. Do you know what else I never saw? I drove what would compare to our state highways, as most of the freeways were toll roads. I never saw any roadside trash. It’s just a different mind set, I guess. Europeans just wouldn’t think of throwing garbage out of their cars into the countryside. What an absurd idea. Why would anyone do that?
We’re only beginning to discover the effects of all this junk in our bodies. It will not surprise me in the least if it turns out to be a contributing factor in obesity and impotence in men (studies confirm this), as well as ADHD, immuno-deficiency diseases like lupus, and even autism.
In addition to the Michael Jessen book mentioned above, I highly recommend What We Leave Behind, by Derrick Jensen, and the article “Our Oceans Are Turning Into Plastic . . . Are We?” by Susan Casey, in Best Life Magazine, May 11, 2007.