In the 1967 film “The Graduate,”
Mr. McGuire offers one word of advice to
Dustin Hoffman’s character, Benjamin Braddock
Today, plastic items of all kinds travel far and wide in their journey into eternity. One of those destinations is in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of California and north of Hawaii. There it has decided that it is so comfortable that it swirls along with other throw away items in a mass of garbage called the “Pacific Trash Vortex.”
The very thing that makes plastic items useful to consumers – their durability and stability – also makes them a problem in marine environments. Around 100 million tons of plastic are produced each year. About 10% ends up in the sea with roughly 20% of this is from ships and platforms, and the rest from land.
The North Pacific sub-tropical gyre covers a large area of the Pacific in which the water circulates clockwise in a slow spiral. Winds are light. The currents tend to force any floating material into the low energy central area of the gyre. There are few islands on which the floating material can beach. So it stays there in the gyre, in astounding quantities estimated at six kilos of plastic for every kilo of naturally occurring plankton. The equivalent of an area the size of Texas swirling slowly around like a clock, entangling sea creatures in its snares.
Photo Credit: calvintang.com
Unlike naturally occurring compounds, plastic does not photo-degrade, it simply breaks up into ever-smaller pieces and lingers in the environment as an invisible toxic dust. Walk along any beach anywhere in the world and washed ashore will be many plastic bags, bottles and containers, plastic drums, expanded polystyrene packing, polyurethane foam pieces, pieces of polypropylene fishing net and discarded lengths of rope. Together with traffic cones, disposable lighters, vehicle tires and toothbrushes, these items have been casually thrown away on land and at sea and have been carried ashore by wind and tide.
Fortunately, some businesses are starting to realize the environmental harm that can be wrought by some plastic items, namely plastic grocery bags. Whole Foods has announced plans to stop offering disposable, plastic grocery bags in all 270 stores in the USA, Canada, and the United Kingdom by Earth Day — April 22. That means roughly 100 million plastic bags will be kept out of the environment between that date and the end of 2008.
Whole Foods decision comes as other cities and countries are moving in the direction of freeing us from those plastic bags that seem to multiply like rabbits. San Francisco banned them; Oakland is considering a ban. New York and New Jersey require retailers to recycle them, and China announced a ban this month.
Now, if China – that great energy-guzzling, product-spewing nation can ban plastic bags, then we are really behind as a society. Yup, plastics is the word, but it sure doesn’t have the same sense of destiny today that it did in the day of “The Graduate.”