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Wednesday, March 18, 2009

OpEd: Message in a Bottle: The Problem is Plastic

by Wallace J. Nichols

“Walked out this morning, don't believe what I saw, a hundred billion bottles, washed up on the shore.”  -Sting

This month, the leaders of a global coastal cleanup network 400,000 strong, spanning 104 countries and 42 states, meet in Washington, DC coinciding with the release of Ocean Conservancy’s expansive report, “A Rising Tide of Ocean Debris.”  After almost a quarter-century of garbage and data collection from creeks, bays, lakes, reefs, beaches and oceans of the world, the results are crystal clear:  The problem of debris in the ocean is not really “debris” at all, but plastic. Debris is something that blows off trees onto the grass, or the driftwood and kelp that have naturally washed up on our beaches for millennia.

The term “marine debris” is a euphemism—an Orwellian neologism crafted by public relations pros working for the plastics industry. While the growing public involvement and attention on this issue, so evident in the “Rising Tide” report, are hopeful signs of a solution, plastic in the ocean remains an burgeoning threat to both human and animal well-being.

Plastic and water just don’t mix for two reasons: plastic floats and it doesn’t go away for a very long time, if ever.  What results is a mess, especially in the ocean. Whether you weigh it or count it, plastic makes up nearly 100% of what washes up on the beach.  In his new book, "Flotsametrics," oceanographer Curt Ebbesmeyer writes that samples of just about everything ever made of plastic can be found on the beaches of the world—plastic ropes, fishing nets and traps, plastic bags and bottles, plastic food containers, bottle caps, rubber ducks, flip-flops, plastic syringes, toothbrushes, diapers, tampon applicators and condoms, plastic cigarette filters and lighters. Gazillions of nurdles—those little pellets of plastic that are the raw material for so many molded items—are mixed with seawater and sand wherever the currents take them.

Plastic comes in many shapes, sizes and uses; it originates from every corner of the globe; and, it is a ubiquitous product of most every industry.  Since the 1950s, one billion tons of plastic has been discarded, and in the past two decades plastic use has simply exploded across the planet.  It is a blight on coastal villages, invading in thousands of new forms, with no exit strategy.  Since the 1960s, the number of plastic items in the stomachs of leatherback sea turtles, minke whales and Laysan albatrosses has spiked.

Recently, while on a research expedition to Indonesia, I witnessed a line of plastic on remote island beaches that are nesting grounds for endangered sea turtles.  I saw walls of burning plastic sliding down cliffs into the sea.  I found plastic fishing gear wrapped around reefs. Plastic bags clogged the intake of our outboard motor every fifteen minutes.

Here, at the bluest heart of ocean biodiversity, floats a sea of plastic.

“The Rising Tide” points out that plastic “falls from our hands, not the sky,” but manufacturers who churn out more and cheaper plastic at an alarming, increasing pace are spreading the problem irresponsibly.  Recycling has proven difficult.  The biggest problem is the labor-intensive sorting of plastic waste into its various types for reprocessing; the costs far exceed the value of the recycled plastic.  The plastic foam polystyrene, for example, is rarely recycled because it is just not cost effective.

We could just wait on Mother Nature for a solution.  Two types of nylon-eating bacteria were found in 1975, raising the hope that new bacteria will evolve the ability to consume other synthetic plastics.  But Mother Nature is slow and plastic is piling up in the ocean by the day.

So, what is the solution to plastic in the ocean? Simple answer: Don’t use petroleum-based plastic.

Human behavior is remarkably flexible when it comes to finding alternatives to plastic. Recently, new biodegradable substitutes have come on the scene.  Many of the plastic items removed from the world’s beaches have non-plastic, biodegradable, and compostable substitutes like those made from plant-based bagasse, the fibrous remains of sugarcane and sorghum stalks crushed for their juices.  Seek out these alternative products when you have to use a disposable container. They go by the names of EcoTainer, NatureWorks and Worldcentric and can be easily found online.  Encourage your local leaders and businesspeople to follow China, India, Ireland, Mexico City and Capitola, California, by banning certain disposable plastic items and taxing others. Reusable bottles, utensils and shopping bags are a start.  Wax paper is a good choice for many household needs.  Avoid plastic “to go” containers.  See if you can make it through a single day without using any disposable plastic.  It’s not as hard as you might think.
Who knows, if we succeed, maybe one day our beaches will again be cluttered with real, old-fashioned marine debris.  The kind your grandfather used to talk about: driftwood, kelp, seashells and the occasional message in a bottle—glass, of course.

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