Way out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, a thousand miles out from the coast of California, floats a continent-sized area of garbage. Those plastic bags that blow off landfills or bottles that make their way into waterways eventually end up in the ocean and places like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
It would be easy to think, once there, that it’s out of sight and can be out of mind, but marine animals are dying at startling rates and our plastic castoffs are being returned to us in the fish we eat.
I’ve never trusted plastic. Growing up, it was based less on fact and more on a gut discomfort with anything that didn’t decompose (and couldn’t be tossed in our compost pile): a fear that somehow just burying all those single use items- bags, packaging, food containers, cups, plates, razors, etc.-, would get us into trouble. But it wasn’t until a few months ago that I learned about our plastic Chernobyl.
Way out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, a thousand miles out from the coast of California, floats a continent-sized area of garbage (some say it’s twice the size of Texas, but it’s exact measurements are difficult to calculate). It’s been called the world’s largest landfill, plastic purgatory, the Trash Vortex, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the Eastern Garbage Patch or the Pacific Trash Vortex, but until 1997 few were even aware of its existence.
Plastic as far as the eye can see
On August 3rd of that year, marine researcher and boat captain Charles Moore detoured a bit on a return trip home from a sailing race to enter the 10-million-square-mile subtropical gyre of swirling air and water nicknamed “the doldrums”. What he saw that day shocked him into changing the course of his life’s work.
“I often struggle to find words that will communicate the vastness of the Pacific Ocean to people who have never been to sea… Yet as I gazed from the deck at the surface of what ought to have been a pristine ocean, I was confronted, as far as the eye could see, with the sight of plastic.”
This part of the world has always been a sink for the world’s trash, but historically whatever bits of wood or paper that got stuck in the vortex eventually would biodegrade.
Today, Moore estimates that 80% of this “floating landfill” is plastic because plastic just doesn’t go away.
“Except for the small amount that’s been incinerated- and it’s a very small amount- every bit of plastic ever made still exists.”
Despite its amazing staying power, we continue to produce 60 billion tons of it every year. It’s become a daily addiction- for carrying our purchases or our drinking water- because it’s so cheap and easily tossed out. The problem is, much of it doesn’t stay buried.
Those plastic bags that blow off landfills or bottles that make their way into waterways eventually end up in the ocean and places like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (There are similar areas in the South Pacific, the North and South Atlantic, and the Indian Oceans.).
A diet of plastic
It would be easy to think, once there, that it’s out of sight and can be out of mind, but our world is too interconnected to be that simple.
Marine animals are eating our plastic castoffs and dying at startling rates.
Every year, more than a million birds, 100,000 marine mammals and countless fish die in the North Pacific from either “mistakenly eating this junk or from being ensnared in it and drowning”.
The fulmar is a bird that lives way out at sea and often to the ripe age of 40, but as their diet is changing in favor of plastics, their lives are shortening. Dutch researchers have used this bird to monitor litter in the North Sea. In the 1980s, 92% had ingested plastic at an average of 12 pieces per bird. In the late 1990s, 98% of the fulmars had eaten some plastic, on average 31 pieces.
“Can nature still produce a pesticide free organic fish?”
Even more threatening than dead fish are the fish who have eaten plastic and lived. While plastics don’t biodegrade, they do “photodegrade” as the sun’s UV rays work to slowly break them into small pieces and even into tiny dust-sized particles. These often tiny dust-sized particles are ingested by ocean organisms like mucus web feeding jellies and salps (chordate jellies that are the fastest growing multicellular organisms on the planet) which are then eaten by fish.
According to oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer, who has been studying the trash in our oceans for decades, “all the food out in the sea has some plastic in it, is the conjecture. And that is a horrific conjecture.” He sees the problem of microscopic plastic as “a new threat” that has just begun to be looked into in the last 5 or 10 years. Some of the problems include:
Plastics can contain endocrine disrupting chemicals which have caused male fish and birds to grow female sex organs.
Plastics absorb pollutants- like PCBS and the pesticide DDT- and concentrate them into dangerous quantities.
Given the pervasiveness of plastic in the ocean- Charles Moore has documented that the levels of plastic particulates have tripled in the past decade to 6 pounds of plastic for every pound of plankton in the area of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch-, we’re reaching concentrations that are troubling scientists.
Moore questions: “We can grow pesticide free organic produce, but can nature still produce a pesticide free organic fish? After what I have witnessed first hand in the Pacific, I have my doubts.”
Moore and others are questioning what could be the long-term results of these plastics and plastic additives (like phlatates, PBDEs and Bisphenol A) that are finding their way into our blood (to see just what is showing up in our blood, view the Environmental Working Group’s Body Burden website).
As Moore explains, “Every one of us has this huge body burden. You could take your serum to a lab now, and they’d find at least 100 industrial chemicals that weren’t around in 1950.”
“There’s a great future in plastics.”
It wasn’t always this way. Plastic is actually a relatively recent invention. While some form of it was invented in the 19th century, it wasn’t really widely used until much more recently- Dow Chemical’s Saran Wrap and Styrofoam weren’t introduced until the middle of the last century.
In 1967, it was considered enough of a novelty to inspire these lines in the classic movie The Graduate.
Mr. McGuire: I just want to say one word to you – just one word.
Ben: Yes sir…
Mr. McGuire: ‘Plastics.’
Ben: Exactly how do you mean?
Mr. McGuire: There’s a great future in plastics. Think about it. Will you think about it?
This was forward thinking, if you consider that plastic bags weren’t even introduced in grocery stories until 1977. Thirty years later, few of us think twice about accepting what is thrust at us in the checkout line: today 90% of all grocery bags are plastic.
The number of Americans who feel it’s necessary to drink their water out of- mostly plastic- bottles has risen as well. In 1980, we consumed just 2.7 gallons per person in 2006, that had risen to 27.6 gallons per person. According to the American Beverage Association, bottled water was “considered a novelty or even a luxury only a generation ago“, but today it’s more popular than milk.
And while for most of the last century, our milk arrived in refillable glass bottles- even as late as 1963, about 30% of all Americans were still re-using the glass bottles left them by the milkman-, today the plastic milk carton (even the paper variety is coated with waterproof plastic) is ubiquitous: by 2005, only 0.4% of us still had our milk delivered.
HDPE Tupperware and polystyrene spoons
Today, plastic plays a role in nearly every part of our lives. From polystyrene plastic spoons to polypropylene long underwear, for every need there is some plastic compound to serve us:
HDPE – High-density polyethylene (milk jugs, Tupperware, bottles)
LDPE – Low-density polyethylene (bags)
LLDPE – Linear low-density polyethylene (bags, Saran wrap, toys)
PET – Polyethylene terephthalate (soda bottles)
PP – Polypropylene (clear packaging, long underwear)
PS – Polystyrene (cutlery, packaging “peanuts”)
PVC – Polyvinyl chloride (pipes, siding, signs)
Our love for plastic is obvious if you look at our garbage. In 1960 plastics were less than 1% of US municipal waste. In 2006, it had reached 11.7%.
It would be nice to think that at least some of our plastic is coming from recycled sources and while there are those companies like Patagonia who have created recycled PET fleece jackets working and polypropylene long underwear (as Tim Rhone showed us for a video on Patagonia’s recycled clothing), in reality plastic recycling is practically non-existent.
Compared to an 80% recycling rate for newspapers, that for most plastics is in the single digits. According to Jared Blumenfeld, the director of San Francisco’s Department of the Environment, “After 10 years, the recycling rate for plastic bags in San Francisco – which is pointed to as a model nationwide – is 1 percent. So 99 percent failure.”
Even if more were to recycle, it’s a very inefficient process. As Blumenfeld explained to the Christian Science Monitor last March, the cost of processing and recycling 1 ton of plastic bags is $4,000. Their value on the commodities market: 32 dollars.
In many areas, cities don’t bother to try to recycle plastic to make new containers, but instead downcycle it into secondary materials, like textiles, carpeting or plastic lumber, which means nearly all the plastic bottles and bags we’re using are made from virgin materials.
Today, plastics production accounts for 4% of US energy consumption.
Remembering the milkman
Plastic is now such an everyday item that some, like the American Chemistry Council, argue we can’t live without it: “What would we do without plastic bags? Very few people remember what life was like before plastic bags became an icon of convenience and practicality.”
But as those taking samples of our oceans and our blood have witnessed, this convenience and practicality come at a cost and more and more people are trying to bring back a bit of life before plastic.
In an article from December 2007, New York Times writer Eve Tahmincioglu asked “Remember the Milkman? In Some Places, He’s Back.” Tahmincioglu talked to small dairies across the US who have noticed a growing demand for their home-delivered milk in reuseable glass bottles.
The Oberweis Dairy in North Aurora, Illinois wash and refill their bottles and have seen a fourfold increase in home delivery since 1997 (from 10,000 to 40,000). The South Mountain Creamery has a waiting list of about 350 families in Maryland, northern Virginia and Washington, D.C.
And there are those- like my Manhattan-based sister-in-law Chloe- who haven’t returned to the milkman, but make the extra effort to buy their milk in reusable containers. Chloe walks the 4 blocks from her apartment to Chelsea Market’s Ronnybrook Farms to pickup fresh milk and return her bottles.
I recently shot a video in Melbourne, Australia at the Friends of the Earth (FOE) food coop where their milk and yogurt comes in reusable glass from Tasmania’s Elgaar Farms. (Also in Melbourne, I shot a video with Swords Wines who offer wine in reusable glass bottles.)
The FOE coop goes beyond just sourcing from suppliers who reuse containers and encourages customers to reuse their own bottles, bags and jars (or reuse those left by other customers) to refill everything from cereal to shampoo that the coop offers in bulk. As the FOE’s Kasey Sparks explained to me, our single use containers have a lot of staying power and can be reused over and over. “People even like say use a yogurt container to fill up their shampoo. I’ve run that personally for years because they last. It’s just a matter of where your priorities are, if you want to look good in your shower.”
Growing your own yogurt
For me, those yogurt containers are one of the largest sources of my plastic waste. I still haven’t found a local dairy that offers it in reusable containers, so I alternate between feeling guilty and going without, but on my visit with my sister Emily in Sydney I discovered a third way: growing your own yogurt.
In the last year, my sister- encouraged by the high cost of yogurt in Australia as well as her inability to throw away perfectly good yogurt containers (resulting in a horrible kitchen pileup)- discovered yogurt in a package.
She gets pretty excited- as you can see in this how to video I shot of her making a batch– talking about how it’s not only cheaper (about half the price), but healthier (according to her nutritionist friend, it has more healthy cultures) than the store-bought version.
And it’s surprisingly easy to make. I watched her take about 3 minutes to mix the packet with cold water, shake it and place the closed container in a second container filled with hot water.
She did need to wait overnight to eat it, or at least 8 hours for the cultures to grow, but her kitchen is now yogurt container free. Next up for her, homemade ice cream.
Setting the clock back pre-1977
While it may take some initial adjustment, it doesn’t have to be a sacrifice to go back to our pre-plastic ways.
In 2002, Bangladesh turned back the clock to pre-1977 and became the first country to ban plastic bags (polythene). That same year Ireland instituted a 15-cent tax/bag or “plastax” (increased to 22 cents in 2007) and has witnessed a 90% reduction in use since then.
Last month, when China announced a national ban- effective this June (significant for a country that uses 300 million per day)- the official government statement urged a return to old habits. “We should encourage people to return to carrying cloth bags, using baskets for their vegetables.”
Shortly after China’s announcement, Australia’s new Environment Minister (and ex-lead singer of the band Midnight Oil) announced his intention to ban, or impose a levy on, plastic bags Down Under by the end of the year, joining a growing list of countries with bans or levys, including:
Taiwan- in 2003, plastic bags are banned, along with plastic silverware and plates in restaurants. Results: 70% reduction in the use of plastic bags, and a 25% cut in landfill waste.
France- most supermarkets charge a fee per bag. Paris has banned them and a nationwide ban is scheduled to begin on Jan. 1, 2010.
Tanzania- instituted a ban in 2006
Rwanda, Kenya, Uganda- set thickness requirements effectively banned the more-difficult-to-recycle thin bags.
South Africa- banned plastic bags AKA the country’s “national flower” because they litter streets – retailers handing out the bags now face a fine of 100,000 rand ($13,800) or a 10-year jail sentence.
UK- In November 2007, Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced his goal to “eliminate single-use plastic bags“.
The Aussie example: what a plastic bag free world might look like
While in Australia this past month, I was surprised to see the country overrun by cloth grocery bags. Although there is no national plastic bag ban yet, the country has been attempting to cut their consumption since 2002 and it seems to be working: by 2005, usage had fallen by 41% and today the cloth bag is definitely back.
With government encouragement the country’s big supermarket chains Coles and Woolworths began selling reusable bags back in 2002 and they’ve since sold over 10 million.
Given that the population is just 20 million, the country is definitely saturated with reusable bags. This was obvious not just at the stores, but it seemed anywhere I went I ran into the ubiquitous green $1 Coles bag being used for books, the beach, picnics and even diapers (my husband & I).
On a visit to the tiny Tasmanian town of Coles Bay which became, back in 2003, the first Aussie city to ban the bag, I was impressed to see that during my hour of loitering outside the small supermarket (attempting to ask questions for my video on the town’s ban) not only did I not see a plastic bag, but most customers had chosen to carry their relatively small loads (a 6 pack of beer, a water bottle, even a carton of ice cream) instead of opt for paper. One couple with a bit larger load who had chosen to buy a Coles Bay cloth bag told me they would use it back home in England.
While accompanying- and videotaping- my friend Katrina Ellis on her weekly shopping trip to Melbourne’s (Australia) Queen Victoria Market, I witnessed a sub-culture where the rolling shopping bag reigned supreme.
Rather than being an act of denial, the shopping trolley (something I see a lot of here in Barcelona) is almost protocol at the market as it makes for a much more comfortable shopping experience (no plastic straps cutting into your hands nor the need to juggle to hold all your purchases).
Walking by all types of variations on the rolling shopping bag (sturdy metal variations and double deckers ), Katrina explained, “There’s trolley envy really. Most people really want them because they just make things so much easier.”
Whole Foods and why reusable sacks may trump even paper
Despite the success of bag ban in cities and countries throughout the world, not everyone is in favor of stepping back in time.
Los Angeles supervisors began looking into banning non-recyclable bags nearly a year ago, but thanks to the spending of groups like the Plastic Food Service Packaging Group (county records show they spent $65,000 to try to influence the vote), this week they opted for a weak voluntary alternative to the ban: encouraging stores to coax customers into using reusable bags.
Plastic lobbyists may have won a battle, but they’re fighting what appears to be an increasingly unwinnable war.
Last March, San Francisco supervisors ignored industry pressure and passed a citywide ban on petroleum-based checkout bags. As the first city in the nation with such a law, they’ve set in motion not just proposals from other cities (Oakland, Berkeley, Santa Monica) for similar bans, but an international reaction from one supermarket chain.
Austin, Texas-based Whole Foods had been considering discontinuing their plastic bag offering, but when the San Francisco bill went into effect, their stores there became a test case for corporate-wide policy. Whole Foods’ C.O.O. and co-president A. C. Gallo told the New York Times that after the ban was enacted, the number of paper bags used in their San Francisco stores increased by just 10%, suggesting that some customers switched to reusable bags.
Beginning on Earth Day 2008 (April 22), Whole Foods will stop offering plastic bags in all 270 of their stores worldwide.
“Plastic was bursting out of the bodies.”
So far, there hasn’t been a shopper backlash against their loss of a plastic option. Before Modbury, England became the first town in the UK to enact a ban, Modbury deli owner Adam Searle used to give out 200 petroleum-based plastic bags every day.
Since the ban went into effect on May 1, 2007, Searle told the Guardian newspaper that he barely hands out two cornstarch bags per day. “I don’t think I’ll get through my biodegradable bags before they biodegrade. You have a couple of awkward people who go ‘it’s a load of rubbish’ and you explain what it’s about and they pat you on the back.”
Modbury is an example of what one small town can do. With a population of just 1553, they’re now being copied by about 80 other small British towns and have pushed the issue onto the national agenda.
But Modbury isn’t home to 1553 environmentalists, the ban was started by wildlife photographer Rebecca Hosking who had seen firsthand birds killed by plastic.
While filming for the BBC series Natural World on the Hawaiian island of Midway, Hosking saw hundreds of Laysan albatross chicks that had died after swallowing our plastic trash at sea.
“There were carcasses everywhere I looked. You couldn’t walk in a straight line without stepping on a dead chick. Plastic was bursting out of the bodies.” Modbury shopkeepers took a look at her footage and agreed on a ban.
Dying birds are motivating citizens halfway across the world to take action, but as scientists probe the longer-term effects of all the plastic accumulating in our environment (infertility, obesity, diabetes, etc), those birds may turn out to be more the proverbial canary in the coal mine.
Oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer offers a more personal reason to take action against a plastic future. “If you could fast forward 10,000 years and do an archaeological dig, a core sample down through the beach, you’d find a little line of plastic. What happened to those people? Well, they ate their own plastic and disrupted their genetic structure and weren’t able to reproduce. They didn’t last very long because they killed themselves…”