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Your discarded plastic cup is floating
December 16, 2004 11:34 AM   Subscribe

Told you plastic is nasty.... Most of plastic that somehow reached the ocean floats in the North Pacific Gyre[look at Currents], an exotic name for an area of the Pacific ocean with a surface larger then U.S.A, dreaded by sailors for its lack of winds and called by some World largest Landfill. The people at Algalita Marine Research Foundation have made this nice video[Quicktime] showing how tons and tons of tiny plastic particles have been accumulating in the area for the last 50 years, slowly entering the food chain. Why does that bother us who live thousand of miles away ? Because we're on the top of the food chain and because that plastic is a sponge of hazardous chemicals.[Via tpl1212's link in another unrelated story]
posted by elpapacito (44 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite

 
Even if humanity were to disappear suddenly, could the Earth ever recover?
posted by jsavimbi at 11:42 AM on December 16, 2004


This is bad.

Looks like we need to engineer some microbes that can digest and convert plastic dust into something a little less, you know, life threatening.

jsavimbi, sure the Earth could recover. It would take a million or ten years but yeah, if we went away, the planet would be fine. But I bet it would be lonely.
posted by fenriq at 11:43 AM on December 16, 2004


Oh, the earth could absolutely recover. It has done far worse to itself.

Here's my question: When we hit peak oil (or sometime thereafter) will people be mining this stuff? Not only from the ocean but from landfills and such? I think one of the biggest problems with burning oil that we don't consider is that we won't have anything to make plastic out of any more. At what point will it become economical to dig up all the stuff we have thrown out?
posted by Yellowbeard at 11:44 AM on December 16, 2004 [1 favorite]


Looks like we need to engineer some microbes that can digest and convert plastic dust into something a little less, you know, life threatening.

How do we keep an engineered microbe from spreading and doing damage to "useful" plastics and to the existing ecology of microorganisms?
posted by AlexReynolds at 11:48 AM on December 16, 2004


Alex, we make another microbe that kills the first one and then another one to kill the killer. Eventually we'll end up with Godzilla but that'll be long after we're all dead.

Didn't you see that episode of the Simpsons?
posted by fenriq at 11:53 AM on December 16, 2004


I'm sure the Earth could recover, as it has indeed been far worse. But the track record as far as species surviving crazy stuff like this (including us i imagine) isn't that great. Perhaps we should be more concerned with that?
posted by 31d1 at 11:56 AM on December 16, 2004


I think one of the biggest problems with burning oil that we don't consider is that we won't have anything to make plastic out of any more.

The video mentions that we already have the technology to make biodegradable plastics from row-crops like corn, though I imagine it's a lot more expensive to do so.

And fenriq, the video also mentions that the molecular weight of plastic is too heavy for microorganisms to break it down. But yes, I suppose it's possible we could bio-engineer something, but right now there's nothing that can be done. The scientists speculated that all the plastic that has ever been made is still out there somewhere, either in a landfilll or our oceans.

I wonder what it must have been like for sailors of yore to sail through the open ocean and not see all the crap that's been piling up for the past couple of decades.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 12:03 PM on December 16, 2004


Some cool use for biodegradable plastic
posted by elpapacito at 12:09 PM on December 16, 2004


Even if humanity were to disappear suddenly, could the Earth ever recover?
posted by jsavimbi at 11:42 AM PST on December 16


Congrats for your very first ever MeFi comment! ...and it is a good way to start.

I find myself daydreaming daily about most of humanity disappearing and the natural world beginning to wriggle out of the strangling straightjacket of concrete and pollution that binds the Earth.
posted by Shane at 12:10 PM on December 16, 2004


George Carlin once said that maybe Mother Nature created man because she needed plastic bags.
posted by Bonzai at 12:10 PM on December 16, 2004


Yeah, plastic from corn is cool and all, but consider what the main thing required to grow all that corn is. I'll give you a hint: it's not water or sunlight.
posted by Yellowbeard at 12:16 PM on December 16, 2004


Corn seeds?
posted by shawnj at 12:22 PM on December 16, 2004


Are you suggesting we make plastic out of Mexicans, Yellowbeard?
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 12:22 PM on December 16, 2004


we should most certainly be alarmed at the effects this will have on the food chain itself. If my understanding is correct, its effecting the most basic building block of the food chain, single celled and planktonic life. I think of this as something deteriorating your red bloodcells, or your core basic molecular structure--- if you think of all life as interconnected--- which it is.
Anyone find the images referenced in the article? It also sounds as if the pollution in the Gyre is vast and stable enough to be photographed by satellite if filtered the right way-- which I imagine would bring the scale and impact of this more into focus.

"Looks like we need to engineer some microbes that can digest and convert plastic dust into something a little less, you know, life threatening" -- the research scientist on the site video states that petroleum based plastics can't be degraded-- although I've heard of research in this direction. He even states that he feels its great hubris on the parts of scientists to believe that they can solve any problem created by technology through more technology. The facts and statistics, particularly in the video are compelling: that plastics entered into the ecosystem never leave it, that plastics from the 40's are still floating around even today, and will continue to do so; that inthe Gyre there are six times more density of plastics in the water to plankton-- and how plastics act as a 'magnet' for toxins, 'holding' it, accreting it perpetually, or until it arrives on the shore or in a living creature.
posted by buddhanarchist at 12:23 PM on December 16, 2004


Even if humanity were to disappear suddenly, could the Earth ever recover?

At this point, that might be the worst thing that could happen.
posted by George_Spiggott at 12:29 PM on December 16, 2004


(sorry: also meant to say thanks to elpapacito for what I think is an amazing, great post)
posted by buddhanarchist at 12:30 PM on December 16, 2004


I was wondering if we will start seeing plankton and other water creatures imitating plastic properties in order to increase their chances of survival.
Maybe even species higher in the food chain with plastic filters.
posted by Timeless at 12:34 PM on December 16, 2004


Since most plastics are chemically inert, I'm really curious (and bothered by) what effect plastic debris has on shutting down a percentage of sunlight to the ocean surface.

The downstream affects would seem to be smaller photosynthesis-based plankton populations, which would mean less oxygen from carbon dioxide and less food for organisms up the food chain.
posted by AlexReynolds at 12:38 PM on December 16, 2004


The video focuses on "nurdles", the pre-consumer tiny plastic pellets shipped to manufacturers, as the accumulators of toxins. It's not clear from the video if post-consumer plastic fragments are as friendly to this accumulation—that the focused on the "nurdles" makes me think this mightn't be the case. (And, perhaps, speculating on why that would be, the nurdles are pre-consumer and plastic-goods manufacturing and are probably pure and uniform and otherwise qualitatively distinct from the other plastic particles.) So, anyway, it seems to me that the problem of keeping nurdles from entering the environment is a much more tractable problem than the general problem of plastic pollutants.

I think that the pollution problem needs to be put into perspective, given comments like jsavimbi's above. Nothing humans have done to the environment threatens, long-term, the earth's biosphere in a large sense. It's hubristic to think so. On the other hand, if you take as the standard the recent status quo of the Earth's biosphere, and its relation to the biosphere as we'd (and a good number of extent species) would "prefer" it; then, yes, that environment is badly threatened by human pollution. We're not capable of "destroying the planet". We are capable of altering it significantly, at least in the short-term geologically speaking, in ways that we won't like. That's concern enough. More than enough.

The creation of this sort of non-biodegradable waste that is difficult or impossible to sequester is just horribly irresponsible. The general problem of factoring in environmental damage into economic activity is a real one (and there is an economic cost to pollution, it's just not being correctly accounted for since it's being transparently widely distributed) is one that must be solved, and government is uniquely positioned to do so. Pollution markets, and other ways of engineering into economic activity the real costs of pollution is an absolute necessity. The notion of "pollution markets" is noxious itself to many people, but it's simply unrealistic to assume that pollution can be merely eliminated by fiat. Fully accounting for its cost into specific economic activity will be enough to solve the problem.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 12:43 PM on December 16, 2004


[This is sweet...if depressing]

[[And not just because i'm blushing 'cause I got footnoted]]
posted by tpl1212 at 12:58 PM on December 16, 2004


Nobody got Yellowbeard's point which is that growing corn with industrial farming techniques consumes lots and lots of oil, in the form of pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, and to a lesser extent tractor fuel. And you still have to truck it to the plastics factory and spend more electricity processing it.

So the nice sounding "plastic from corn" leaves out the step - corn from oil.
posted by anthill at 1:00 PM on December 16, 2004


C_D, Mexicans biodegrade faster.

anthill, alot of that oil could be replaced by ethanol.
posted by fenriq at 1:05 PM on December 16, 2004


A few non-petrochemical plastics through history:
- Bakelite (the first synthetic plastic)
- Cellulose acetate
- Polyvinyl chloride (PVC)

You may also be interested in Soy plastic.
posted by me3dia at 1:11 PM on December 16, 2004


The radio program "This American Life" has an interview with someone who researches this problem. I can't seem to link directly to the realaudio file. Here's how you get it:

1. go to thislife.org
2. search for or go to The Middle of Nowhere, 12/5, Episode 253.
3. the interview is the first part of the show
posted by quadog at 1:15 PM on December 16, 2004


Why are petrochemical plastics not biodegradable when other plastics are? They're all just long-chain organic molecules, aren't they?
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 1:17 PM on December 16, 2004


anthill: hear hear! I remember reading a Harper's annotation of an FTD bouquet - one of the many dirty secrets was it took more petroleum than water to grow the damn thing.
posted by 31d1 at 1:46 PM on December 16, 2004


fenriq
anthill, alot of that oil could be replaced by ethanol

I dearly, dearly hope that was sarcasm.
posted by Yellowbeard at 1:53 PM on December 16, 2004


biodegradable plastics from row-crops like corn,

Ahhh, but the process uses GM corn. So once the 'special' genes spread to people who save seed, they become 0wn3d.

Not to mention that the corn could become toxic.
posted by rough ashlar at 1:58 PM on December 16, 2004


Since most plastics are chemically inert

Where are you comming up with this idea?

Can you back that up with actual data?
posted by rough ashlar at 2:01 PM on December 16, 2004


Why are petrochemical plastics not biodegradable when other plastics are? They're all just long-chain organic molecules, aren't they?

Breaking down plastics is usually an endothermic process -- you have to input energy to make the reaction happen. Enzymes in nature have to have something to "grab" on to on the molecule in question, otherwise the amount of energy needed to modify a molecule is "expensive", i.e. not happening. Natural enzymes have evolved to grab and work on molecules found in nature, and to work with energy levels found in natural biochemical reactions.

Synthetic polymers are not really found in nature, so the enzymes at our disposal do not work on them. The idea of bioengineering bacteria to do this really means engineering bacteria with synthetic enzymes that do the dirty work. Beyond the bioengineering part and the difficulties with containing custom bugs, we need to engineer enzymes to break down the component in question. This is not easy in itself.

On preview: Rough ashlar, most commercially available plastics (PVC, teflon, HDPE, etc.) are chemically inert. If your acidic soda reacted with the plastic bottle, and you ran a soda company, you'd be in serious trouble. If your customers poured bleach down the drain and the plumbing pipes started to react by outputing chlorine gas, you'd have a lot of dead or sick people and a lot of lawsuits.
posted by AlexReynolds at 2:06 PM on December 16, 2004


Reminded me of the rubber ducky spill.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 2:10 PM on December 16, 2004


Oil4kids.com
posted by me3dia at 2:13 PM on December 16, 2004


most commercially available plastics (PVC, teflon, HDPE, etc.) are chemically inert.

If these plastics in question are chemically inert, please explain how toxins are binding to the small bits of plastic that then get eaten by the sea-going critters.
posted by rough ashlar at 3:09 PM on December 16, 2004


You just answered your own question. Read it again.
posted by AlexReynolds at 3:23 PM on December 16, 2004


thanks for the link papacito.
posted by specialk420 at 5:04 PM on December 16, 2004


A corn economy just isn't in the cards, folks, and the sooner we deal with that and the total bankruptcy of alternative energy as a viable, system-saving, capitalism-sustaining solution the sooner we can, well, invest in oil futures and become rich men and women before we all starve.

As Yellowbeard and anthill have been so kind to point out, industrial farming depends largely on fossil fuel inputs. Oil to run the harvesting and processing machinery and the transport infrastructure, and as an input in pesticide manufacture. And Natural gas for fertilizer production (this is likely the biggest fossil input per unit of corn/soy/whatever). Row crops are very hard on the soil, and are basically being grown on fossil fertilizer these days - what remains of the natural soil is just a platform for a hydrocarbon+sunlight+water process. So point 1 is that you cannot replace fossil energy/manufacture needs with plant sources because you're just shifting your fossil dependence from industrial manufacturing/refining to industrial agriculture.

For those with their heads under rocks, this is a problem and not just a more eco-friendly way of using oil because an increasingly vast array of experts are predicting that we are nearing the peak of global oil production, after which supplies will become increasingly scarce despite the fact that demand continues to rise. Previous blue discussions here, here, here and here. North American natural gas production is peaking now.

Last winter I did a set of calculations to figure out how much of current U.S. oil consumption could be replaced by ethanol, given a set of fairly rosy projections about improvements in the energy efficiency of ethanol production, land available for production, etc. I really need to get those calculations back up on the web at some point. Anyway, the gist of it is this: assuming you could get your ethanol energy efficiency up to 2.0, crash reallocate a massive amount of American agricultural land that's currently used for feed production, grazing or is idle, and keep it fertile (see above for problems with that), you could meet about 10% of America's current oil needs with ethanol. Now, that was a figure of only some use, since I didn't have stats at the time for how oil use breaks down into gasoline, heating and other heavy oils, pesticides, plastics, etcetera. But you can bet that that 10% (which is a rose-coloured glasses figure anyway) is not a credible replacement for gasoline and plastics, let alone the other applications for which it is less suitable. And of course, when you ramp up your corn-growing on land that was idle or grassland (about 50% of the input land in these figures), you're going to vastly increase your agricultural draw on natural gas-based fertilizer and oil-based pesticide. And your fuels draw for harvest and distribution.

The energy equation of our economy is broken. If we don't find a way to fix it, we're going to face catastrophic shortages and system collapse. To fix it will require radical transformations, not just engineering solutions. I'm doubtful that we'll actually be able to do anything to prevent a collapse.
posted by kowalski at 5:24 PM on December 16, 2004


Smaller, less corporate and specialized farming can be done with less reliance on petroleum based fuels; developing local and community based agriculture will decrease shipping: but more importantly: if we grew and ate grain as opposed to growing grain and then feeding it to cattle, which we then eat, we would have to use much less for production in proportion to how many calories is generated. As well meat is subsidized, and cutting back on it frees up resources to place into other kinds of farming/research. Plastics are generated and handed to us, whether we really need it or not, in quantities that are much greater than necessary, with little or no incentive to recycle. This is industry perpetuating its own niche. None of this destruction is necessary, or a result of population itself: its from corporate decisions being made off of a short-term model of thinking.
posted by buddhanarchist at 5:43 PM on December 16, 2004


If we don't find a way to fix it, we're going to face catastrophic shortages and system collapse.

What's the downside?

We finally made the choice recently to stop buying plastic baggies (ziplocs etc) b/c we couldn't afford it, and we didn't want the PCB's in our food and home environment (not necessarily in that order!). A small step, of course, but it's neat to look in the fridge to see all the leftovers lined up in their glass jars (formerly home to organic salsa).
posted by iwearredsocks at 7:51 PM on December 16, 2004


Lets build a floating island out of plastic. Bruce Sterling can be the visionary but eccentric leader, Cory Doctorow can run the amusement park, Mathowie can be the speaker of the house and we can communicate with the outside world by posting written shout-outs on paper and then taking digital pictures of ouselves holding them and posting them on flickr.
posted by srboisvert at 8:02 PM on December 16, 2004


Nah, that would be so 1999.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 8:38 PM on December 16, 2004


OilFromKids.com
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 10:26 PM on December 16, 2004


According to this this company plastic can be made into oil.
posted by dawiz at 10:50 PM on December 16, 2004


Civil_Disobedient:
That would be the greatest idea ever! Instead of spending all those tax dollars putting inner-city kids trough high school, then boot-camp, not to mention the logistics cost of sending them to small faraway countries - we could simply turn them straight into precious oil!
posted by spazzm at 1:48 AM on December 17, 2004


Spazzm, I think Civil_Disobedient is just pulling your leg, as the process of raising kids for oil would almost assuredly have a negative energy return on energy invested. While in the short-term the harvest of children in the wild might be a way of clawing back energy being wasted on our inner cities, just as with whales (who provided vastly larger quantity of fuel per unit with much lower energy investment requirements) in the long-run populations will decline and the industry will be faced with the need to farm these children to continue its rates of production. However, human children are a grossly inefficient manner of producing energy, given the vast quantities that must go into their nine-month gestation and then several months of rearing until they're large enough to provide a profitable output of oil and other saleable matter.
posted by kowalski at 8:21 AM on December 17, 2004


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