One word: plastic.
Benjamin Braddock as The Graduate in the 1967 film may not have been at all interested in it.
Meanwhile, America has swooned to the seduction of plastic after finding a generation ago that “cheap oil” could be made into so many versatile, colorful and inexpensive tools, toys and trinkets.
Every year, about 300 billion pounds of plastic are produced around the world. And the best thing about plastic we discovered since the sixties is that it is practically indestructible.
And maybe the worst thing about plastic, Benjamin: it is practically indestructible.
Take plastic shopping bags, for instance. They are so prevalent across the landscape that I propose that they be named the new national flower. Lifted to bloom on tree limbs by the prevailing traffic-winds of speeding eighteen-wheelers, they are the most lofty blossom of humanity’s love affair with plastic.
It’s hard to believe it has only been some 25 years since we were first faced with that awful but lightly dismissed environmental conundrum: paper or plastic? And overwhelmingly in recent years, the answer has been-you guessed it-plastic. Fully 80 percent of shoppers choose it. I read recently that “somewhere between 500 billion and a trillion plastic bags are consumed worldwide each year”.
But wait. Let me set the record straight: that many bags are made and are utilized. But dear hearts, they are NOT consumed. They are NEVER really consumed. They are however, unfortunately, sometimes eaten-but more about that distinction in a minute.
So. Where do all those trillion plastic bags go when they disappear from our lives-the ones that don’t end up in the high branches of roadside trees? First, we’ll watch a bag settle into Goose Creek right out my window here, blown from the back of someone’s passing truck.
From there, it will wash into the South Fork and on downstream, into the main flow of the Roanoke River. It may perhaps in high water become temporarily hung up in the branches of a piedmont streamside alder. But eventually, it will find its way to the ocean. And there it will not be alone.
Let’s follow our wayward bag to its not-quite-final end (a Styrofoam coffee cup would follow the same route) all the way into one of six ocean “gyres”-great swirls of listless ocean sometimes called the “horse latitudes” where much of the world’s floatable trash ends up in unimaginable abundance. The North Pacific Subtropical Gyre between Hawaii and California can swell at times to twice the size of Texas and has come, just within our lifetimes, to contain many times more plastic than that area of ocean contains in living matter (biomass.)
Bad enough that our trash plastic unaltered and whole can strangle an albatross or seal (six-pack holders are notorious for this kind of death) or choke a green sea turtle that fatally mistakes our ocean-drifting plastic bag for a tasty jelly fish.
But perhaps the most ominous thing about the durability of plastic is that it can, over long stretches of time, wear down by sheer mechanical action into smaller and smaller particles without reverting back to its constituent carbons and hydrogens.
Many millions of pounds of these tiny non-digestible particles are destined over decades, centuries perhaps, to float in the ocean currents. In time, tiny bite-sized bits of plastic will be munched but not digested by zooplankton, the bottom tier of the marine food chain. These tiny animals by countless metric tons will be eaten by bigger and bigger fish, on up the food chain and into the grocery stores. And the plastic-and its constituents (a rogue’s gallery of dangerous additives) lives on, and on, and on.
Consider this: “Except for the small amount that’s been incinerated-and it’s a very small amount-every bit of plastic ever made still exists.” Each of us tosses about 185 pounds of plastic per year. And you have to wonder: do we need filtered-water bottles that will last for 500 years?
Where does this leave you and me? Perhaps we are on the verge of a slow substitution of non-degradable with break-downable “plastic-like” shopping bags and six-pack holders and drink containers and Barbies and Kens that don’t require fossil fuels. As nearby as Virginia Tech, new, less persistent polymers for this purpose are being created using chicken feathers!
So the next time the nice young man at Slaughters presents me with that impossible paper-or-plastic dilemma and I don’t know how to answer, I’ll be toting a canvas shopping bag (it’s a start, and something we can do in the near term) and I’ll smile as I imagine a green sea turtle off the coast of Myrtle Beach munching contentedly on a real, digestible, peanut-butter-and-jellyfish.
Polymers are Forever http://urltea.com/ji0
Plastic Ocean http://urltea.com/rcx
Plastic A’int my Bag http://urltea.com/ucj