Ever hear of several huge islands of plastic garbage in the ocean? How did they get there and why are they a concern? What's the story about getting charged for bags in grocery stores now, and why do we need to put up with biodegradable take-out containers that melt before you get them home with your dinner?
These were some of the questions Susan Mashiyama wanted us to consider this past Thursday at our last Science Bytes of the season. She promised to not only discuss the global epidemic of accumulating plastic and how it may threaten our health, but—encouragingly—what concrete steps we can take to help.
Being a musician as well as a scientist, Susan segued into her presentation about the oceans and the water cycle by playing her original composition “Dawn at the Lakes” on a Celtic harp (http://bit.ly/14FRE5m). It’s a beautiful piece, inspired by images of light and water, and it eased us into a difficult discussion.
We began by watching a short video of Captain Charles Moore, who, one day in 1997, found himself sailing through the midst of a seemingly endless “island of plastic” in the middle of the Pacific (http://bit.ly/5Is8u). It’s been estimated that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch alone (there are others) is at least twice the size of Texas. Moore’s experiences with this disheartening reality made a deep impression on him, and he is now devoted to calling attention to the problem and helping stop it at its source.
Susan presented three major problems associated with plastic in our environment: 1) Living things are strongly affected by small amounts of toxins; 2) Natural cycles, such as the water cycle, are highly impacted by these toxins; and 3) Over time, toxins tend to accumulate in organisms and biomagnify up the food chain.
The statistics are harsh and depressing. In the United States alone, we use over 2 million plastic beverage bottles every 5 minutes. Under 5% of plastics are recycled. The effects of plastics on aquatic animals are well documented: fish have stomachs full of small and large plastic pieces; animals are caught in plastic rings; birds mistakenly feed their babies bottle caps. The problem gets even worse as plastics break down. Toxins stick to plastic for a long time (think oil on Tupperware) and are released into the environment even more efficiently as the plastic breaks up into tiny pieces.
It’s easy to be completely discouraged and give up. What can we possibly do to counteract such a seemingly insurmountable problem?
Susan assures us we can do a lot. Simply increasing public awareness can begin to make a huge difference in people’s attitudes and actions. Enacting legislation (that plastic bag ban, for example) can be very effective. Consumer pressure is a powerful tool; companies will listen. (Remember the tuna boycott after dolphins were found trapped in tuna nets? The tuna fish industry had said that it was an unfixable problem; new nets would be prohibitively expensive. However, after tuna sales plummeted, suddenly everyone decided dolphin-friendly nets weren’t such a bad idea.)
And even though ocean cleanup has been deemed “impossible,” Susan advocates supporting innovative efforts to do just that. She reminded us that recently a 19-year-old Dutch engineering student made the news with his plan for large-scale cleanup of even the tiniest pieces of plastic debris. More information, including a video of him explaining his invention and his plan, is found here: http://bit.ly/187d76E.
A lively question and answer session followed Susan’s talk, with thought-provoking questions about the role of plastics in disease and the role of oil companies in the proliferation of cheap plastics. But we were left with a decidedly positive outlook and the realization that when humans are pushed up against a wall, they often come up with absolutely brilliant solutions. And we can all be a part of that.