The Secret Life of Plastic
by: Young Writers Posted on: June 11, 2012
Photo: NOAA Photo Library
Editor’s Note: Written by the inspired Young Writer Amanda Clausen, this piece provides an observant look at how we came to consume and pollute the oceans with so much plastic.
Amanda is currently studying biology and Spanish at Western Washington University. She works with the Northwest Straits chapter of the Surfrider Foundation to monitor Bellingham Bay’s water quality and to educate the public about local and global watersheds. She also volunteers at the Marine Life Center in Bellingham.
The Surfrider Foundation is dedicated to the protection and enjoyment of the world’s oceans, waves and beaches. Founded in 1984 in Southern California, Surfrider is now an international organization. The Northwest Straits chapter has recently been involved with passing the Bellingham bag bill, opposing the Cherry Point terminal, and testing the water quality of Bellingham Bay.
Sixty years ago, the post-World War II United States saw the rise of consumerism and the beginnings of the “disposable lifestyle.” Economic prosperity and an obsession with “convenience” defined the 1950s. Disposable paper plates and plastic cutlery made life easier on housewives, plastic grocery bags and plastic water bottles made their first appearances, and over the subsequent decades society became accustomed to the ease of such single-use items.
The use of these disposable conveniences has become a deeply engrained habit for societies worldwide. We buy a water bottle, we drink the water, and we throw the bottle away, no longer our problem. But the bottle’s life story does not end in the garbage can. It ends in the ocean.
In 1997, Captain Charles Moore came upon the Great Pacific Garbage Patch while returning from a yachting competition in Hawaii. The Patch is very tangible evidence of the wastefulness of societies worldwide. Plastic combs, cups, lighters and plastic toys travel from all over the planet to meet in the central Pacific Ocean. It’s tough to quantify the size of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. It is often called an island or an aquatic landfill, but since it knows no boundaries it’s more like an enormous plastic soup. The patch is estimated to contain 3.5 million tons of debris. Concentration levels are highest in the North Pacific Gyre, where plastics get trapped in the eddying currents, but these days there is no escape from plastic litter. Everywhere you look, even on the most far-flung and remote beaches on the planet, bottle caps and plastic bags are washing up on the shores. The debris is unpleasant for beachgoers, but aside from its unsightly nature the litter also poses a major threat to marine life and ecosystem health.
Since Captain Moore’s discovery, he has conducted studies on marine life, water quality, and plastic concentration in the vicinity of the Garbage Patch. One of his studies1 showed that in some parts of the Pacific, plastic outweighed plankton six to one. The enormous amount of plastic in the sea infiltrates the ecosystem and food chain. Plastic often entangles marine animals, causing them to choke or starve, and is also frequently mistaken for food. Particles have been found in the bellies of many marine animals including albatross2, seals3, dolphins4, and all seven species of sea turtles5. This is a global issue that hits close to home: in April 2010, a gray whale washed up near Seattle with a stomach full of trash, including more than twenty plastic bags6.
What we can see is scary, but there is more to the story than what meets the eye, and when we take a closer look it gets even more unsettling. Large pieces of petroleum-based plastic break down into tiny particles that never fully decompose. The chemical structures of these tiny pieces allow persistent organic pollutants to permeate and accumulate, and once incorporated into the food chain, the plastic particles (along with the pollutants) stay there7. This means that it is literally impossible to certify that a wild-caught fish is organic! We are at the top of the food chain, and we ingest the plastic that we put into it. Another scary thought is that we don’t know how long it will take for the ocean to cleanse itself of the plastic particles that exist already, let alone what we will contribute in the coming years.
So what can we do? Unfortunately, straining the ocean to remove existing litter is simply too costly, and would cause untold damage to marine life. We must stop the problem at its origin: our addiction to plastic. The first step is awareness. You’ll be surprised when you start paying attention to the plastics you encounter daily. See which plastics you can do without, and spread the word to friends and family. Recycle when you have to use plastic and if you find litter, pick it up- it will likely end up in the ocean if left to its own devices! Support bills that oppose the use of plastic grocery bags, Styrofoam, and plastic bottles. Bellingham’s bag bill passed in 20118, paving the way for Seattle9 and other Washington cities to follow suit.
Virtually every piece of plastic that man has created is still on Earth. Our heavy dependence on single-use, disposable plastic products just isn’t logical!
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