The planet upon which we live and die is a complex system much like the human body. It takes in materials, breaks them down, and transforms them into other substances.
The world’s oceans bear the brunt of Terre Firma’s clean-up. It is in the seas that the majority of humanity’s cast-offs are consumed, repurposed (as housing for some marine animals), or further broken down into tinier constituents by wave action, bacteria and other microorganisms, and ultraviolet rays from the Sun.
The Big Blue acts as the Earth’s liver, processing waste materials for further nutrient extraction and final disposal. Like the hepatic system of an alcoholic, though, the oceans can only process so much garbage at a time – once overloaded with material, the natural mechanics of biodegradation lose efficiency and may stop working altogether.
In the north Pacific between the American Pacific Northwest and the Asian Pacific Rim there now lies a very disturbing reminder that the planet’s “liver” is suffering from a form of cirrhosis – there is a visible expanse of plastic castaways floating in a becalmed sea. The mess has been called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. A preferred term, however, is the Pacific Plastic Reef – this artificial island of plastic is the size of the state of Texas, and it is here to stay well into the next millennium even if humans ceased all plastics consumption this moment.
Baekeland was a driven inventor, and one of his experimental accidents led to a revolution in manufacturing and how the world lived. He had tinkered with the idea of creating artificial
This strange new material was marketed under the trade name “Bakelite”, and many things in the next decades – hair combs, early 78 RPM recordings, household goods, radio cabinets, etc. – were made from it. It was inexpensive and could be colored to emulate tortoise-shell or other materials. It stands as one of the greatest inventions in human history; Baekeland, already well-off, became rich beyond his imaginings. [While Leo Baekeland created an empire, decades later his spoiled brat grandson – as an adult – murdered his own mother in a sensational case involving allegations of maternal incest, homosexuality, drug use, and promiscuity.]
Further changes to Baekeland’s base formula led to molecular arrangements creating softer, more pliant polymers. The Age of Plastic bloomed.
Over the centuries sailors learned that there were many such pockets of “dead air” on the planet, and sailing into these meant not only running the risk of slowing down, but of becoming stuck in a watery desert with no unfurling sails to carry the ship away. Starvation and dehydration were certainties. Two early identified regions of calm straddle the equator at roughly 30°N and 30°S latitudes. These zones of high barometric pressure, calms, and light variable winds came to be called “The Horse Latitudes”.
The familiar name came from livestock trade ships in the late 1700s – carrying horses and other animals, such becalmed voyagers sat listlessly rolling in a dead sea for days or even weeks. In an effort to lighten a ship’s load to take advantage of any errant wind, the crew jettisoned the horses and other livestock, leaving them to drown as the vessel slowly gained a breath of air in its sails to move.
A substance that does not biodegrade, however, was Leo Baekeland’s genie-out-of-the lamp, plastic. This material, though organically based, is not subject to any normal biological processes for dispersal. It reacts only to cutting, shredding, chipping, tearing, and to the ultraviolet radiation of the Sun. These actions, however, do not destroy the plastic or turn it into something more easily “digested” by the planet. Instead, what remains are merely smaller and smaller pieces of plastic, right down to plastic molecules (that can be measured in quantity in water samples).
More plastics, of course, meant more plastic wastes to dispose of. Though plastics can be burned, it is inadvisable as the toxins released do nothing for air quality (and in mobile home fires, it is the noxious smoke from the dominant plastic materials used in their construction hat kill occupants, not the fire itself). Dumping plastics are nearly useless as well – the material merely sits, largely intact, impervious to normal landfill processes for reduction. [People like to point to disposable diapers, such as Pampers®, as the bane of landfills. The plain truth, however, is those are designed and manufactured to be nearly 100% biodegradable.]
The biggest culprit for accumulated plastics on the planet is not disposable diapers. The current ecological issue comes from a fetishizing of humanity’s most basic required need: water. The idiocy of the “bottled” water industry (most of which is nothing more than distilled tap water) created a massive market for PET (a flexible plastic used to make beverage containers). When drinking bottled water became trendy in the early 1980’s, the disposable, plastic water bottle became ubiquitous on the cultural and literal landscape. Tons of these things find their way into landfills and the world’s waterways every year (along with plastic soft-drink containers).
Recalling that the gentle, and time-consuming, trip from the edge of the North Pacific Gyre can take years, plastics, as they were discarded carelessly, accumulated in the mild maelström. The creation of the Plastic Reef had started with little notice.
The plastic does not merely sit on the surface, either. Heavier pieces have taken on water and sunk to the ocean floor. There, a plastic reef is accreting, creating an artificial home for creatures that formerly did not have shelter in the region. This alone creates an ecological imbalance – predators and species not normally found in that part of the ocean have taken up residence. In turn, the indigenous species are being displaced.
More tellingly, though, is the known degradation process of plastic. Smaller, translucent organisms (such as jellyfish) have been captured with brightly colored pellets of plastic plainly visible in their bodies. Even plankton has taken on the substance – plastic molecules are detected in them at alarmingly high rates. The plankton, in turn, is eaten by larger organisms, the plastic accumulates in the entity, until finally a sea animal that humans consume is brought up, complete with plastic molecules absorbed into its edible parts.
Another issue involves reproduction. Plastics, whether in large pieces or molecule-sized mites, are like sponges, and they readily absorb many harmful chemicals from the environment (such as PCBs and other oily toxins that seawater cannot dissolve). The central cell of the Plastic Reef occasionally shifts toward the Hawaiian Islands. A certain beach on Oahu becomes coated with blue-green plastic “sand” on occasion as a result. Hawaiian green sea turtles nest there – mistaking the blue-green “sand” for their natural food, they eat it. Resultant egg-laying can show poor embryo development, bad shell formation, and in other cases the turtles may die from the poisons ingested along with the plastic.
The effects of this artificial plastic “iceberg” manifest themselves in all organisms, from plankton (the Reef now has six pounds of plastic versus one pound of plankton in any spot) all the way up to humans.
Because plastic absorbs so many toxins, any organism ingesting it has its hormone receptors altered. Dependent upon the amount consumed this may have no effect on the animal. But, one of the problems in higher concentrations is that the brain’s hormone receptors cannot differentiate the unwanted toxins from a natural estrogenic hormone (estradiol). These chemicals dock at the hormone receptors, and the results of this are devastating. Such disruption has been shown to lower sperm counts; higher ratios of female-to-male births in humans and animals have been noted.
While plastics are certainly useful, the disposal problem unfortunately remains. Skimming the debris would be a Herculean task – one can only imagine how many scows and barges working full-time it would take to retrieve the detritus. Also, once collected, what would be done with the material? Manufacturers can only reclaim so much “pre-used” plastic – processing changes the structural integrity of it. It can only be re-used in the “post-consumer” category so many times.
The best solution, of course, is recycling, but the inherently lazy human organism generally will not expend much effort along those lines. Some countries have instituted small surcharges on things such as plastic grocery bags and plastic bottles, refundable sometimes by returning the container to its sale point or to a recycling center. While these changes are admirable, it is too easy for any consumer to merely throw away their empty water bottle rather than waste the time and effort to go back to a store to be refunded five cents.
Realistically, it is up to the conscientious person to do his or her part. Reuse plastic containers for other purposes. Buy a reusable water bottle, and refill it from a larger distilled water source. Simple measures such as these will not clear out the Pacific Plastic Reef, but it may tend to slow its growth.
A special “thank-you” goes to artist, SYoshiko, who granted permission for the use of her exquisite painting, Slums of the Deep (detail of which was used as the frontispiece for this article).
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