Plastic Disturbia

The other day I was paddle boarding around the bay in West Seattle. At this time of year, we have extreme low and high tides, and the slack tide in between tends to be the collection point for a lot of garbage in the water. Even as the day was lovely, the paddling exquisite, I kept coming across a disturbing pattern: big globs of muck that were built out a tangled mess of fishing line, 6-pack ring, seaweed, plastic bags, algae, bungee cords, dead fish, feathers, plastic bottles, unidentified gunk and plastic food containers. The common ingredient: plastic. And there were a lot of these little floating islands.

plastic in our oceans

These congealed half-bio-half-plastic masses are very quickly becoming ubiquitous in our oceans. If the only damage were that of the scenery, I could almost but not quite shrug it off.

The damage is much, much worse. In fact, you could say that what I was seeing off Lincoln Park was just the barest tip of an iceberg.

Sierra Magazine has an article this month entitled “Message in a Bottle” and it’s worth a few minutes to read. Gird yourself, you may not be prepared for the story:

  • There is an area off the coast of Japan known as The Garbage Patch, three times the size of Texas and a seeming doldrums where the world’s plastics collect and degrade.
  • Don’t kid yourself: plastic doesn’t ever entirely degrade like things in the organic world. Plastic simply breaks into smaller and smaller pieces. Those pieces at some point become indistinguishable from krill and other food sources in the ocean
  • This plastic broth is making its way into the food chain; the bellies of baby fish are gorged with the stuff and yet they die of starvation. Adult birds and fish are ingesting it. It’s real, it’s happening.
  • One of the main culprits is a thing called plastic nurdles--manufactured plastic molded into small nuggets for easy shipment to manufacturing plants all around the world to make things like that handy blue plastic water bottle, that shovel and bucket your kids play with at the beach, the parts in your car, the caps on your soda, the packing in that new TV (not to mention the TV itself), the plastic wrapper on the grapes you brought to the picnic, the cap on your latte-to-go, your flip-flops, and that bobble-head toy you got at the ballpark. The massive ships carrying these nurdles sometimes lose their cargo, sometimes they accidentally dump large quantities of the stuff, sometimes it just gets loose.

The thing I can’t get out of my head, the thing that haunts me is how much plastic there is. We really don’t even think about plastic as plastic anymore, we think of it as normal. Diamonds may not be forever, after all they are organic structures, but plastic really IS forever. Where will all of this stuff go, this stuff that really IS forever?

In my own little life, we have upped our efforts to decrease the amount of plastic in our lives, but it’s an uphill battle. We reuse our plastic bags and buy in bulk as much as possible, we forego the plastic cap on the latte, we avoid the over-architected containers.

And we have to content ourselves with that. It’s not enough, but it’s something we can do.

The clean-up on this mess will be monstrous; if we started today, we could have 100% employment for decades. The one upside to this is it’s undeniable: the massive three-times-the-size-of-Texas floating islands of garbage are real. You could go there today and be blown away by the iceberg-depth and island-breadth of the mess.

plastic ocean 2

18 responses to “Plastic Disturbia

  1. Thanks for the post, what a horrifying mess. The UN is calling for a ban on plastic bags I hear. We don’t see the problem here in Colorado, but I grew up near Seattle and find this pretty surprising.

    I wonder if some of this could be melted down and somehow recycled?

    • Thanks msjean–I’ve checked the news out on this UN proposal, that would be awesome if they could take a stand on this. Plastic bags are the easiest to recycle–far more dangerous are those little plastic bits, nurdles, that are used in manufacturing. Appreciate the comment!!

  2. Pingback: Update on Plastics….the only permanent thing in the world « What it’s like

  3. yes.we are all very good in thinking, spitting opinions, theories. we also say we wanna fight fight fight against the evil forces that rule this world and want to fill it with palstic bags and make poolution bigger. but we express ourselves through a pc, which is inevitably plastic, be sides a result of centuries of colonial violence (koltan). we could not be here without plastic. non plastic, no medicine, no food, nothing. no plastic – no (postmodern) mankind.

    do you agree? you ought to.

    • This is the sort of reductionist argument that is not really worth entertaining but hey…it’s patently ridiculous to suggest that we can’t live without plastic when for the vast majority of human history, we did just that.
      Just as we’ve seen with so many systems in the last 30 years, the manufacturing of plastic has gone unchecked and virtually unexamined. Perhaps we wouldn’t choose to live without plastic entirely, but we certainly would choose, if given the choice to live with plastics that can be recycled multiple times, products that don’t come laden with worthless layers of plastics and packaging that do no one any good at all.
      To suggest we couldn’t think our way out of this corner we’ve painted ourselves into is to sorely underestimate the human imagination and inventiveness.

    • I agree there were a lot of great innovations that were made possible thanks to plastics, but that same innovative spirit should enable us to find better alternatives now. Some PC makers are starting to switch to plant-based plastics, and there are plenty of examples of entrepreneurs and researchers finding other alternative solutions. I would suggest “The Introduction of Earth 3.0” by Scientific American for this topic:

      They explain the benefits of industrialization (“Earth 2.0”) that followed billions of years of sustainable, closed ecological loops (“Earth 1.0”). But, argue that we can have the both of best worlds – “one with all the prosperity of 2.0 but also the sustainability of 1.0.” It’s not a zero sum game…

  4. We can add to the list – people – plastic people, something we could all us of, wouldn’t you say? It seems right along with our use of plastic, people have become less concerned with what really matters and more concerned with their own well-being. What should we consider in this case, recycling?

    We’re all in this together, let’s remember that and work together.

  5. There’s great news on the horizon for plastic, a Canadian teen has found a way to decompse them. Here’s a link to the article;

    Canadian teen’s process decomposes plastic bags

    This is great news!

  6. Pingback: Comment re Earth 3.0 « What it’s like

  7. I want to go their and put a flag on it…start a new utopian society on an ever gorwing island of trash. Who is with me?

  8. Yes, we might consider replacing the ZPG code of “Zero Population Growth” to be “Zero Plastic Growth”.

    One of the worst culprits is bottled water.

    Everyone who is concerned about their drinking water (and they should be- check out the Charles Duhigg material) needs to get the best filter they can find for their tap water and fill their daily supply from that.

  9. Pingback: H2O 911: How Safe Is Your Drinking Water? | Oasis Lady


    really 3 times the size of texas? yet i cant find a picture of it anywhere. wow is that ever amazing!!! earth activists cant tell you with a reasonable answer any of the common sense quiestions we should all have about these outragous claims!! we have more polar bears now than ever, our water is cleaner now than ever!! forest fires are fought not raging out of control till they burn themselves out(the natural way) no you all want to be scared of the boogy man!! i dont care if thats what you want buit please raise the money yourself i dont want my tax money doing this silliness anymore!!

  11. Terrifying story. You are right, it is impossible to completely cut plactic out of ones life. Indeed, I dont believe it is even necessary or desirable. Surely their is enough plastic circulating in the world to satisfy all human needs as they stand? If a ‘par’ level of plastics can be effectively managed, distributed and recycled a balance will be found that allows the human race to make use of plastics undeniable useful qualities without letting these very qualities deface the planet.

  12. i think we should stop using bottles because it ends up in the ocean.

  13. Pingback: Getting the word out: We can solve the problem of the Pacific Garbage Patch « What it’s like

  14. Pingback: Running after 50: this is some crazy shit. | What it’s like

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