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Thursday, April 30, 2009

FEATURED COLUMN: Message in a Bottle: The Problem is Plastic

FEATURED COLUMN: Message in a Bottle: The Problem is Plastic

By Dr. Wallace J. Nichols
Monday, April 27, 2009 1:19 AM EDT

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

Last month, the leaders of a global coastal cleanup network 400,000 strong, spanning 104 countries and 42 states, met in Washington, DC coinciding with the release of the 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 "debris," but plastic. Debris is what 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 framing device promoted by plastics industry public relations pros.

The mess in our ocean is made almost exclusively of plastic—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 tiny pellets that are the raw industrial material for many molded plastic items—are mixed with seawater and sand wherever the currents can take them. Depending on where you are in the world, plastic makes up nearly 100% of what washes up on the beach both in terms of the number of items and their mass.

While the public involvement and growing attention on this issue so evident in "A Rising Tide" are hopeful signs of a solution, plastic in the ocean remains an expanding threat to both human and animal well-being. In his new book, "Flotsametrics," oceanographer Curt Ebbesmeyer writes that samples of just about everything ever made of plastic can be found washed up on the beaches of the world.

Plastic and water just don’t mix for two main reasons: plastic floats and it doesn’t go away for a very long time. By plastic, of course, I’m referring to the wide range of synthetic organic solid materials used to manufacture myriad consumer products. They are typically polymers of high molecular weight that often contain additives to improve things like flexibility and/or reduce costs.

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. In the past two decades, plastic use has simply exploded across the planet. It is a blight on coastal villages around the world, invading in thousands of new forms, without an 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, 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.

In the bluest heart of ocean biodiversity floats a sea of plastic.

Granted, 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 other 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, particularly in the North Pacific Gyre, or the "Great Pacific Garbage Patch" or the "Pacific Trash Vortex" as it is sometimes known.

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 plastic substitutes have come on the scene. Many of the items removed from the world’s beaches have reusable or non-plastic, biodegradable and compostable substitutes such as those made from plant-based bagasse, the fibrous residue remaining after sugarcane or sorghum stalks are crushed to extract their juice. Seek them out when you need a container, they go by the names of EcoTainer, NatureWorks and Worldcentric and can be easily found online. Encourage local leaders and businesspeople to follow China, India, Ireland and dozens of U.S. cities, by banning certain disposable plastic items and taxing others. Reusable bottles, utensils and shopping bags are a simple solution. Wax paper is a good choice for many household and lunchbox 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 be full of real, old-fashioned marine debris. The kind the original beachcombers used to collect: driftwood, kelp, seashells and the occasional message in a bottle—a glass bottle, of course.


Dr. Wallace J. Nichols is a Research Associate at California Academy of Sciences.

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