I find I’m obsessing about the fact that now there are huge plastic patches occupying five of the world’s oceans — which, of course, comprise one ocean that contains billions of plastic bits. Each year, 8 million metric tons get dumped there; that’s one garbage truck-load a minute. Plastics become trapped in whirlpool-like eddies, circling for years. Some are eaten by would-be predators, others slowly break down into toxic microdots, most of which sink. Unless some unlucky gill-feeding sea creature sucks them in. And perhaps someone eats that twice-unlucky animal.
Sorry to mention it, but I wonder, when do the vast oceans of the world become a plastic gel and everything dies? I’d hate that.
Now, you think, I don’t live along the coast, it’s not my plastic ending up in the oceans. That’s certainly true; developing nations and others along the coastlines are largely responsible. But the oceans are basic to all life; their rhythmic circulation of air and water helps create weather. If the ocean goes, life as we know it goes.
I’ve sworn off on single-use plastics, but it’s difficult, nearly impossible. Almost every product we buy is wrapped, usually more than once — consider supermarket meat: in a plastic tray, resting on a bloody cushion, all three then encased in plastic film, placed in a plastic carrier bag; all of which usually end up in a larger plastic bag as landfill.
As well, we folks have a love affair with digital technology. It’s always updating, creating discards of cunningly designed devices, their tiny span of usefulness long over while their form takes eons to degrade into those poisonous particles.
Perhaps you recycle. Well, recycling is in trouble. There are thousands of types of plastics, from filmy wrap to automobile bumpers. Most can’t be recycled. And of those that can, most never reach the recycler. For example, Americans discard 2.5 million plastic bottles every day. Recyclables all require different techniques, indicated by a code on the product. Since few people interpret the codes, we dump all plastics together, polluting the recycling stream, and our bundled-up recyclables are no longer being accepted by recyclers.
Back in the 60s, my obsessed worry about the environmental degradation that seemed so evident to me even then, my doctor refused my request for anti-depressant medication. The doc told me, “You mustn’t let the problems that are destroying the world, destroy you.”
Well, what about the problems? Since the 60s, the world’s population has more than doubled, from 3.6 billion to 7.7 billion people, consuming products and discarding packaging.
Change always starts with one’s self. Do you bag up your garbage for someone to take away? Or do you bring reusable bags to the market? Do you wash, dry, and reuse the bags, finally recycling them? Do you recycle clean cans, papers, cardboard and old appliances, and single use plastic containers, after carefully checking their recycling codes. This is a lot of work. No wonder most folks just get garbage service.
Attention to our own garbage is essential; becoming aware of the problem is a start. On a wider scale, The World Economic Forum recommends sweeping actions, from UN follow-through on its proposals to ban plastics from the ocean, to provide better waste management for developing coastal nations, and imposing charges, fees and taxes for manufacturing non-recyclables.
I want the situation not to be hopeless. Private individuals and research groups have launched dozens of types of ships for ocean cleanup, while others are developing biodegradable plastics from corn, cellulose, sugar, milk protein, grape waste, and liquid paper. Perhaps if we improve our waste-discarding habits, and governments finally take the problems seriously, we may yet keep from becoming the only species to make themselves extinct.
Susan Stornetta is a retired archaeologist and a longtime Comstock resident.