Friday, December 12, 2008

Plastic Soup

Picture this -- You get up in the morning, brush your teeth and get ready to go to work. Grabbing your travel mug you head out the door to the office. The day is long so you order lunch from that place down the street. You finish up the day and head home, picking up some take out because your effort to cook, after such a long day, is really low. You get home, sit down to watch some television with dinner and finally wash your face and go to bed.

This day sounds innocent enough, typical of many people out there in the working world. How could a day like this contribute to what is known as Garbage Island? Or, more importantly, what is Garbage Island?

Yesterday Julie posted a link in Facebook to TOXIC - GARBAGE ISLAND, a twelve part video series on, detailing the trip to, and discovery of, what is known as Garbage Island, a swirling current (the North Pacific Gyre) approximately 1,000 miles off the shoreline of California where accumulation of plastics of all shapes and sizes have floated to stay. Since plastic does not biodegrade but instead disintegrates into smaller particles that float, the ocean is the perfect catch basin for much of this debris. The crew on this mission discovered everything from birthday balloons to helmets to tires but the most frightening thing of all was the volume; the ratio of plastic to marine life in some areas was upwards of 1000:1. Yikes. So where did it all come from and how did it end up in the Pacific?

Go back to the day of the average person again and instead of being so vague let’s detail some of the places in this story where plastics could have been used.

You get up in the morning and hit the off button of the plastic alarm clock beside your bed. Brush your teeth with a plastic toothbrush. Women apply makeup (housed in plastic containers, using brushes with plastic handles); men shave their face (using either an electric razor encased in plastic or a disposable plastic razor). You grab your insulated travel mug with the plastic lid, jump into the car (I can not even fathom how many plastic pieces are utilized in a car) and head into the office. Using your plastic badge you enter the building, sit down in your plastic based office chair, turn on the plastic based computer and work until lunch. At lunch you order soup and a salad from the deli down the street; each are stored in a plastic container. You head home and stop for take out (in a Styrofoam [plastic] container of course) and turn on the plastic based television while eating. After an evening of scrolling through the channels using the plastic based remote you wash your face with that stuff you love that comes in the plastic tube and finally, go to bed.

On the lowest level this person used fifteen plastic based items in one day. As our society has become more disposable minded all of those items are built to wear out quicker, causing a need to repurchase and toss the old item. Many times this garbage will fall off a ship but more than not it comes directly from the land. This is possible even when we do not realize it is happening -- next time you see a plastic bag floating in the breeze think about how far the wind might blow it before it stops, when a bottle whooshes into a storm drain after a particularly heavy rain think about where that waterway ends.

One of the quotes from the video series particularly struck me and it said:

“Persistent Organic Pollutants are chemical substances that persist in the environment, bioaccumulate through the food web, and pose a risk of causing adverse effects to human health and the environment.”
- United Nations Environmental Program

Bioaccumulation is when substances like harmful compounds (toxins) amass, in diverse tissues of living creatures. In this example the obvious organism would be marine life but the chain of ingesting toxic chemicals grows as birds eat the fish, other fish eat the fish and humans eat the fish. Contaminates are introduced into our daily food supply and are seriously impacting sustained life of entire species on this planet (an example is when a bird goes out to eat and returns to feed their young, the young end up with stomachs full of plastic as opposed to the essential nutrients they need to survive and they perish as a result).

So what can we do? Can we physically clean up all the pieces that are already there? Unlikely. Can we make an attempt to stop putting more into the ocean? Absolutely!

Yesterday I posted a question from Linda with regard to plastic shopping bags and indicated that extending the life cycle of those bags is most paramount. This is true of all non-biodegradable plastics. When we act as consumers we need to think of the total life cycle of the item in question -- how long do we intend to use the item, what do we do with the item upon the end of its life span? If we are throwing it away we should be conscientious as to how we do so -- do we recycle our plastic or throw it in the trash, is there a way to reuse it, can we upcycle the item into something functional that may last long beyond the initial intended life span?

Opening our eyes to the issue and reducing our dependence on disposable plastic products is the first step in fixing the problem and this video is a fantastic eye opener. Please be aware that the twelve parts (plus the five minute extra) are an approximate total run time of a little over an hour and some very colorful language is used throughout but putting that aside this was the most informative, best hour I have spent learning in a long time.

Because of all these factors I am bestowing a Four Leaf Rating on this entire video series. Well worth the investment of time; well worth thinking about every day.


TheresaJ said...

GREAT, GREAT, GREAT post!!! I watched all 12 parts and am glad (I think) I did. I think it would be fabulous if the world would just stop making plastic for everyday use items. I mean, I know it's needed for some things, like medical devices, scientific uses, etc, but why can't we go back to glass for our grocery items? Why do we need plastic baby bottles? Why do our children's toys need to be plastic? I think plastic should be banned unless there is absolutely nothing else the item can be made of and the good of the item outweighs the bad effect. I remember, shortly after I was married in 1982 at ripe age of 21, when I started really doing my own grocery shopping, I would buy whatever brands offered their product in glass, regardless of the cheaper price. Now, it's hard to even find a glass alternative for many items.

But you're right. It's not just the food containers. It's my computer, my printer, my speakers, my TV, my clock radio, many of my electrical appliances, my hair dryer, the 100's of disposable pens I've gone through in the last 10-20 years, and so much, much, much more. I think it would be nearly impossible to try to do away with plastic in our lives at this point as we don't even really have a choice with many of these items at this point in time. So, yes, we all need to do our part to reduce the plastic in our lives and to re-use or repurpose whenever possible, but a real change needs to come from the manufacturers. They need to stop offering their products in plastic and only plastic. At the very, very least, can we please go back to glass containeres for our food products?

High Desert Diva said...

Oy. The mind boggles.

ginger said...

yup. i posted about that big, plastic island twice the size of texas before on another blog i used to have. there are actually about 4 of them currently floating in our oceans if you can believe that. i do make sure all of my plastic gets recycled and i even make choices to purchase items that are contained in aluminum or glass instead of plastic when shopping. food containers get up-cycled and re-used as well.
unfortunately, i live with someone i'm constantly policing and pulling recyclables out of the trash and she refuses to carry a sigg or even a nalgene bottle so there are the bottles that end up in the oceans or in a landfill if i don't catch them.
i really want this earth to be around and in a healthy state many, many generations from now so thanks for posting this and raising some awareness jenn.

i give you 5 leaves!!! :)

artjewl said...

I tried to comment the other day from my blackberry, but for some reason it wouldn't let me.

Anyhow, I'm really glad you posted this. The one thing I think I found most disturbing is that the Gyre was historically a place where nutirents accumulated. Now, instead of nutrients, there are toxins, toxins that have been shown to cause fertility problems and miscarriages in animals. If we keep it up, we could be seeing the beginnings of "Children of Men" playing out for real.

I also thought it was telling when they mentioned that they were only eating the smaller fish during their trip because they hadn't been exposed to the toxins of plastic soup as long as larger ones had been.