15 October 2007

Blog Action Day: Let's Talk About Plastic

Isn't it funny that the material we seemingly can't live without has the potential to kill the planet? Perhaps that was too strong a statement. Let me restate the question: isn't it funny that the material we seemingly can't live without has the potential to kill our oceans? I'm not making this up.

In doing research for this blog post, I happened upon an article by Captain Charles Moore of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation. Instead of restating it, I'll excerpt some of what he says about the plastic floating around in our oceans:

Now, however, in our battle to store goods against natural deterioration, we have created a class of products that defeats even the most creative and insidious bacteria. They are plastics. Plastics are now virtually everywhere in our modern society. We drink out of them, eat off of them, sit on them, and even drive in them. They’re durable, lightweight, cheap, and can be made into virtually anything. But it is these useful properties of plastics, which make them so harmful when they end up in the environment. Plastics, like diamonds, are forever!

If plastic doesn’t biodegrade, what does it do? It “photo-degrades” – a process in which it is broken down by sunlight into smaller and smaller pieces, all of which are still plastic polymers, eventually becoming individual molecules of plastic, still too tough for anything to digest. For the last fifty-odd years, every piece of plastic that has made it from our shores to the Pacific Ocean, has been breaking down and accumulating in the central Pacific gyre. Oceanographers like Curtis Ebbesmeyer, the world’s leading flotsam expert, refer to it as the great Pacific Garbage Patch. The problem is that it is not a patch, it’s the size of a continent, and it’s filling up with floating plastic waste.

It’s not just entanglement and indigestion that are problems caused by plastic debris, however. There is a darker side to pollution of the ocean by ubiquitous plastic fragments. As these fragments float around , they accumulate the poisons we manufacture for various purposes that are not water-soluble. It turns out that plastic polymers are sponges for DDT, PCBs and nonylphenols -oily toxics that don’t dissolve in seawater. Plastic pellets have been found to accumulate up to one million times the level of these poisons that are floating in the water itself. These are not like heavy metal poisons which affect the animal that ingests them directly.

A trillion trillion vectors for our worst pollutants are being ingested by the most efficient natural vacuum cleaners nature ever invented, the mucus web feeding jellies and salps (chordate jellies that are the fastest growing multicellular organisms on the planet) out in the middle of the ocean. These organisms are in turn eaten by fish and then, certainly in many cases, by humans. We can grow pesticide free organic produce, but can nature still produce a pesticide free organic fish? After what I have witnessed first hand in the Pacific, I have my doubts.

We, as surfers, need to be more proactive about highlighting the way we and everyone else pollutes the ocean. Why do I say "we"? Well, the fact that we're surfers doesn't mean we take care of the environment. Yeah, we'll clean up the beach every once in awhile or give money to ocean-related organizations. How many surfers do you know who arrive at the beach with cups of coffee purchased at a major coffee retailer. What do they do with that plastic lid once they finish the coffee? They/we, like everyone else, throws the cup and lid away. The cup may degrade eventually. The lid will not. Eventually, it could end up in the ocean. How many of you order take-out? What do you do with the plastic utensils you're given? Do you simply throw them away? Then you're part of the problem too. One of the reasons Americans are reticent to get serious about environmental issues (and, yes, I include myself in this too) is because we don't see the pollution problem for what it really is. We think we've done enough by buying hybrids and talking about being green. But we're not green, are we? I admit that I'm not. I also admit that I don't quite know how to be green, but that I'm now giving it serious thought, especially when it comes to plastic.

My worry with regard to plastic is the fact that it's everywhere. It's easy to remember to recycle large plastic containers, what about the little stuff?
This is a picture of some of the plastic we need to dispose of. The Spiderman cup (which Soul Brother #2 has outgrown) and Starbucks cup (which also came from SB #2—no, not coffee, but apple juice) are no-brainers. Those go straight into the recycle bin. But look at that plastic in front of the Spiderman cup. That's part of the packaging for the little man's push-up pops. Since he eats them and I don't, I hadn't realized the packaging was partially plastic. When I did realize it, I ended up digging through the trash to get those many plastic pieces out and into the recycle bin. What about the juice box and Ziploc bags? If you've got kids, you've got plenty of both of those. How many of us recycle those things? And can you even recycle the juice box straws? And why do those straws need to be plastic?

Going back to my original point, there's a whole plastic island floating around in the Pacific. The fact that we don't see it doesn't mean we shouldn't be horrified by the very idea of it. The plastics in that "Garbage Patch" that do break down end up being ingested by sea life. I won't belabor the point. I'll merely ask you to consider the food chain. Everything starts at the bottom and works its way up to the top. It's already a well-known fact that we're overfishing our oceans. What's going to happen if the fish we can eat are, in fact, inedible because they've either ingested plastic or ingested smaller fish that have eaten plastic? People seem to think that this will never be a reality. All I can say is, "Get your heads out of your asses."

People, all I ask is that we make concerted efforts to recycle plastic—plastic grocery bags, plastic cups, plastic water bottles, plastic utensils, plastic push-up pop holders, etc. We also need to reuse plastic whenever possible or try not to use it at all (i.e., shopping bags). Again, I include myself in this. I'm not angel when it comes to plastic. I can do better. I will do better. Don't throw that shit in the trash. Don't throw it in the ocean. The only good plastic . . . is a recycled plastic.


At 10/15/07, 12:25 PM, Blogger Alan_M said...

nice post
what's worse is that both the manufactture and recycling of plastics also serve to pollute the planet too.

At 10/15/07, 12:58 PM, Blogger Daniel said...

Here is a link to a short video examining plastic in our oceans:
Good post.

At 10/15/07, 11:28 PM, Anonymous tim said...

Nice post. Per your earlier post about wetsuits, taking better care of your wetsuit is also an important eco-minded practice. Don't take care of it and it falls apart, soon to end up in a landfill.

Surfing is toxic. It's getting better. We should do everything we can to avoid unnecessary waste.

Just my two cents. Again, today's post was great.

At 10/16/07, 5:49 AM, Blogger Surfsister said...

Thanks, Tim. In the past, I've "recycled" wetsuits by giving them to a group that gives surf lessons for free. They always need suits and I give them my old ones. The 3/2 I've been complaining about of late will be used as padding for that surfboard stand Soul Brother #1 and I haven't finished building. But you make a good point.

At 10/16/07, 10:11 AM, Anonymous Matthew said...

Thanks for your timely post and your honesty about the tradeoffs of living a greener life. Heal the Bay is urging the L.A. County Board of Supervisors to take San Francisco's lead and follow its own staff recommendation to enact a full or partial ban on onetime plastic shopping bags. Angelenos use 6 BILLION bags a year and very few of them are recycled. Yes, they can be convenient but they waste energy, clog landfill, foul our public spaces and kill marine life. If you'd like to join thousands of others in signing a petition to the board, please go to healthebay.org

At 10/17/07, 8:34 AM, Blogger Paula the Surf Mom said...

Good rant... like the new title too.

At 11/13/10, 11:34 PM, Anonymous Lulu said...

Maybe try and alternative to plastic flatware will help, even if it is in the smallest way. It is one less plastic hazard. This alternative looks like plastic ware, it even feels the same too; the only difference is that this flatware is completely degradable. It will degrade in less than 360 days. If you are interested in purchasing these items, www.umg-green.com/plastic-utensils is the place to go.


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