The True Cost of Plastic

05/25/2011 03:55 pm ET

Our voracious appetite for one-time-use plastics that is now hurtling back toward us as an ever-growing and devastating set of plastic fingerprints on our natural world. It's not well-known that since Leo Hendricks unveiled the first fully synthetic moldable hard plastic called Bakelite to the American Chemical Society in 1909, except for a very small percentage that has been incinerated, every single molecule of plastic ever manufactured still exists somewhere in our environment.

The most apparent and shocking of which is the plastic waste that can now be found scattered across the surfaces and the depths of our planet's oceans. It's beyond tragic to articulate. Plastic is impervious to enzymatic breakdown. It's literally jamming up the code of nature. Which means the very durability that makes plastic so useful to humans also makes it incredibly harmful to all the natural life cycles in every ecosystem worldwide. The effects of these manufactured materials on the vitality of fish, marine mammals, and birds alike are two-fold.

One is the actual ingestion of plastic, as in the case of the majestic and now endangered albatross. The Laysan albatrosses that nest on Kure Atoll and Oahu, Hawaii, get it the worst. They are mistakenly swapping up squid, fish, and krill for floating plastic items such as fishing line, light sticks, and lighters. Scientific American quoted Lindsay Young of the University of Hawaii, summing the problem up perfectly: "There were so many small plastic toys in the birds from Kure Atoll . . . that we could have assembled a complete nativity scene with them." It's estimated that of the 500,000 albatross chicks born every year on Midway, almost half of them die from consuming plastic fed to them by their parents. One was found to have 306 pieces of plastic inside its belly.

But even more ominous is the second major issue regarding the spreading plastic plague, toxicity transference.

In the open ocean, plastic photo-degrades, which means it absorbs the sun's photons and begins to break into simpler and simpler compounds without ever actually disappearing. The tiny pellets that result are called mermaid tears or nurdles. Because of plastic's open molecular structure, mermaid tears sponge up fat-soluble compounds like PCBs, DDT, and a host of herbicides and pesticides present in the ocean in diluted quantities. Plastics also have a nasty affinity for oil; just think of the permanent ring left behind in a food container after storing spaghetti sauce.

The transference occurs as small amounts of these chemicals work their way up the food chain from the filter feeders all the way through to the fish fingers on the kitchen table. All over the world, children and adults alike are unwittingly exposing themselves to low levels of toxicity. Plastic is an odorless and tasteless parasite.

But if killing all forms of marine life and now, potentially, us humans, isn't reason enough to react, there is more. Plastic and other marine debris is smothering beaches as well, especially those in the path of the swirling garbage patch. Currents that drag garbage into the gyres also shoot it out to surrounding landmasses. The nineteen islands of the Hawaiian archipelago, including Midway, for instance, receive massive quantities of trash, some of it decades old. Some beaches are buried under five to ten feet of refuse, and others are riddled with fine granules of plastic or "plastic sand."

In October 2006, the U.S. government established the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine Monument as an attempt to quell the rising tide of debris. Congress passed legislation to increase funding for trash removal and ordered several government agencies to expand cleanup efforts. This could prove to be an important step if it leads to governments focusing more attention on a problem that, although dire, has received serious scientific focus only since the early 1990s.

That said, the people who are studying the issue continue to point out the overall lack of viable solutions. Trawling the oceans for trash is impractical in terms of budget and logistics, and it would ultimately harm plankton and other marine life. Even if it was safe for sea creatures, cleaning up the north Pacific gyre alone involves clearing a section of ocean that spans the area of a continent and extends one hundred feet below the surface. Maybe more feasible and exponentially more effective is managing the waste on land, where fully 80 percent of ocean debris originates in the first place. (The rest comes from private and commercial ships, fishing equipment, oil platforms, and spilled shipping containers.)

But what's crazy about this situation is that it simply doesn't have to be this way!

If we can shift a common perception of plastic from waste to a valuable resource, we can slow and, in some places even reverse, the alarming environmental damage occurring around the planet. Meeting this challenge doesn't even need to be a chore. It can be an adventure, an honest-to-goodness, swashbuckling adventure. The kind that gets you out of your car, your office, or your bed and into nature, so you understand exactly, even viscerally, what it is you're trying to save.