Avoiding death by plastic
April 22, 2008 8:15 AM   Subscribe

Talk about plastic accumulating in the North Pacific gyre has popped up on and off for quite a while now. Vice is running a series on the state of the gyre, as part of their "Toxic Series". Given the fact that most plastics are not biodegradable, we need to start looking more carefully at how much damage we are doing to ourselves through our use of plastic, and what we can do about it.

Not surprisingly, some plastics may also pose more direct health risks to us. Just a few months ago, Mountain Equipment Co-op, a popular retailer of outdoor gear in Canada, pulled polycarbonate Nalgene bottles from its shelves. Now the Canadian government has banned baby bottles made from this clear plastic because there are indication that Bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical used in its production and which leaches out of the plastic, may be potentially quite harmful.

It seems unavoidable that we need to find viable replacements for plastics. San Francisco has banned plastic shopping bags, and even China, a country with pretty spotty environmental record, will ban plastic shopping bags nationwide starting in June.

Given the current prevalence of plastics today, we also need to consider how we can recycle or reuse the vast mountains of plastic waste we have already produced. One of the links above mentioned Plastic Lumber, which apparently does not require plastic to be sorted before recycling.

As today is Earth Day, I though this would be a good topic for people to think about.
posted by TheyCallItPeace (35 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
A friend of mine filmed a documentary about the plastic in the Pacific Ocean a few years back.
posted by The Card Cheat at 8:30 AM on April 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold.
posted by nasreddin at 8:38 AM on April 22, 2008

Why couldn't we scoop up all the plastic in the various gyres and mold them into floating continents?
posted by DenOfSizer at 8:40 AM on April 22, 2008

Or at least pleasure islands with astroturf-like golf courses on them.
posted by DenOfSizer at 8:40 AM on April 22, 2008

The long-term problem, to me, seems to be less the plastic itself, but that constant barrage of UV sunlight that cooks that plastic soup into all kinds of novel chemicals. While we can slowly corroborate Bisphenol A and hormone-like chemical poisoning with reproductive and other system damage, not only are these new chemicals unknown, but their effect in concert on our bodies is a complete mystery. Moreover, this stuff travels into people everywhere.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 8:47 AM on April 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

The second someone invents the bacteria that eats plastic and craps oil, those gyres will be scooped up before you can say Jack Robinson.

Come on, microbiological engineers! Get off your asses!
posted by Aquaman at 8:53 AM on April 22, 2008 [2 favorites]

I think there is too much focus on minimal environmental hazards at the expense of big ones.

My community recycles plastic, paper, and metal. None of which poses a particularly serious risk when sent to the landfill. But put a can of paint, a container of solvent, or a box full of pesticides or old nail polish on the street for pick-up and no one wants it. It ends up in the landfill along with everything else.

The stuff that should be recycled or otherwise properly disposed isn't while we satisfy ourselves with superficial and largely useless recycling efforts.
posted by three blind mice at 8:57 AM on April 22, 2008

My community recycles plastic, paper, and metal. None of which poses a particularly serious risk when sent to the landfill.

You mean aside from the problem of running out of landfills?
posted by cmonkey at 9:30 AM on April 22, 2008

There's an even easier solution to all of this. Its actually an easy solution, and it actually works.

Stop buying so much. Note, I didn't say "stop buying so much stuff" or "stop buying crap". I said "stop buying so much" and I mean it. Wait, no, I can contract that even farther.


Cereal in a box? Don't buy it! Bottled water? Soda? Individually wrapped lunch snacks? Don't buy them and suddenly they're not a problem in your trash stream. TV dinners? Hell no.

Do you REALLY need a new set of dishes? A new car? A new house?

No. No, you actually don't need those things. You want those things, but you don't need them.

I know that here we are, 50-odd years into the post-WW2 consumerist American dream and it seems like it is just the way things are, but it isn't, and it doesn't have to be. Each of us has chosen to partake. Every time you pull out your wallet, cash or credit, you're making a choice to partake in it. Actively.

Stop buying more than you actually need. Stop buying for convenience, for disposability. All those little things in Western culture? So many of them are luxuries, not mere conveniences.

Realistically it isn't so simple. I know. I struggle with it a lot. The more you eliminate from your purchased-trash stream, the harder it seems to be to eliminate all of it. You become very aware of what you're buying, and it can be frustrating. But I know from experience that most people in the US could stand to eliminate 99% of their trash stream just by modifying their purchasing and usage habits.

There's so much more you can do. You can even start right now! Going out for coffee? Bring a cup! Thirsty? Use a cup instead of a disposable bottle. Need to bring water with you? Do what we've been doing for centuries and grab a jug! How about a nice gourd? Or a mason jar, or recycled juice jar? Jot down a note on your hand instead of another piece of paper, or use memory tricks to not need the note! Washing your hands? Bring a cloth towel!

Want something cool and sweet to drink? Want a soft drink? Do you need that Pepsi Blue? Fuck, no, you don't! Squeeze some juice! You need fruit, and juice is a great way to get it.

What? You don't have time for all of this? Listen, lazybones, get the fuck off your ass and put your money where your mouth is back in your pocket, roll up your sleeves and get to work - or quit fretting and bitching about the problems you and I have helped create.

Working too many hours? Quit your job. Get something part time and basic. You won't need so much money after not buying so much unneeded stuff. Get a smaller place, or share the one you have. Start or join a co-op or co-ownership. You don't need that shiny, fashion accessory of a car, either. Or at least, you don't need to drive it every day, or every week, or even every month.

Reduce. Reuse. Then recycle, remember?

And don't be afraid. All the really, truly cool, useful and good stuff in the world has actually been here for a long time - save for maybe bicycles, skateboards and electronics/computing. You can do it in such a way that not only will you not miss anything, but you'll actually be better fed, rested and well-off, materially and spiritually.

Hell, no, I don't have it down perfect. Not even close. I like cookies. I smoke. I like to drink. But I've never owned a car. I'm approaching a year and a half without a fridge. I do a pretty good job of not eating things out of packages, I haven't had to buy clothes/tools/toys new in a long, long time. Try it. Your health, your wallet and the whole planet will thank you.
posted by loquacious at 10:19 AM on April 22, 2008 [19 favorites]

Need new clothes? Just wear this perfectly good hairshirt!
posted by nasreddin at 10:32 AM on April 22, 2008 [2 favorites]


Counterpoint: "I was feeling something was missing in my life, and turns out it was something missing from my closet! I was in Vegas recently and found a gorgeous Roberto Cavalli blouse at 60 percent off!"
posted by kurumi at 10:33 AM on April 22, 2008

You mean aside from the problem of running out of landfills?

Yeah, people seem to miss this one all the time. It's a perfect example of an external cost that's not borne by the producer or consumer of a good, at least not directly.

This is why Toronto has such an aggressive recycling program - households in Toronto no longer throw out any food scraps with the garbage - it all goes into a "green box" for anaerobic composting. And it's because Toronto pays some huge amount per tonne of trash to throw it out. Garbage dumps are not free - they cost a lot of money and if you had to pay for every bag of trash you threw out you'd be into reducing and recycling plastic too.

Also, I found the series on Vice to be OK but not great. Too much filler not enough time out there showing plastic waste and discussing its impact. I don't care about the captain of the boat and his cat.
posted by GuyZero at 10:43 AM on April 22, 2008

Stories like this don't make me hopeful for the future, that we have the ability to repair our world. They only make me mournful, helpless, and guilty — as a middle-class Westerner — for feeding the giant trash monster that will eventually destroy us. My family has been recycling and reusing plastics for the last 30 years, and we make every effort to reduce our consumption and waste, but it seems futile in the face of the unrelenting production of toxic chemicals in our world.

Does anyone honestly have a solution for this? Other than reducing our quality of life?
posted by Down10 at 11:41 AM on April 22, 2008

I found the narrator-guy (with the glasses) to be incredibly annoying. He was completely inarticulate, and for some reason was compelled to insert "fuck" into every sentence. What an idiot.
posted by KokuRyu at 12:26 PM on April 22, 2008

Sure, Down10. Alter our perceptions so that we no longer think that downsizing consumption is "reducing our quality of life." And the best way I've found to do that is stop watching TV and most Hollywood-produced movies, and start reading books, going to live events and hanging out with friends.
posted by seanmpuckett at 12:28 PM on April 22, 2008

This is why Toronto has such an aggressive recycling program - households in Toronto no longer throw out any food scraps with the garbage - it all goes into a "green box" for anaerobic composting. And it's because Toronto pays some huge amount per tonne of trash to throw it out.

Refraining from using plastic bags or pop bottles isn't going to do it. Household and consumer waste, while quite obvious way out there in the ocean, probably accounts for just a fraction of the plastic waste poisoning our oceans. Nurdles are the real culprit:

Over 250 billion pounds of nurdles are shipped around the world to plastic processing factories every year. Nurdles are plastic resin pellets that represent the most economical way to ship large quantities of a solid material, that is, in a pelletized form.

The pellets come in rail tank cars, and at 20-25,000 per pound, there are about a billion of them in each tanker. So many have escaped over the last half century during the transfer from rail car to factory by vacuum hoses, washing during rainstorms from rail sidings to the sea, that nurdles now represent about 10% of the litter counted on beaches worldwide.

posted by KokuRyu at 1:03 PM on April 22, 2008

There's a whole load of hysteria surrounding waste these days.

I wrote about the Pacific gyre on my site, and it's still one of the most contentious articles on there. Essentially, my point was: yes, the gyre exists and no, the floating island of garbage does not. There is plastic caught in the gyre - about one piece per million square metres. Compare that with Ambon Bay in Indonesia, which boasts four pieces of garbage per square metre.

This 'plastics-on-the-ocean' then gets confused with plastic bags, which don't feature much in ocean pollution - monofilament line, injection moulding pellets, and drifting fishing gear are bigger problems.

So the whole ban-the-bag is a good example of action designed to make people feel better but which ultimately has little impact on the environment.

This also applies in a large part to the 'stop buying' tactic. You might think you're freshly-squeezed OJ is low impact, loquacious, but it still needed a shedload of packaging to reach you unbruised and intact.

The point is - there's no such thing as zero-impact living - every organism on earth lives at the expense of another. Yes, we should be prudent, but no, let's not beat ourselves up about it.
posted by SciencePunk at 1:40 PM on April 22, 2008

Less new plastic consumption = less demand for nurdles.
posted by D.C. at 1:42 PM on April 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

Also, stopping using disposable bags has other positive savings which have nothing to do with ocean pollution. We've nickel & dimed our way into these problems, the only possible way out means becoming more efficient in every way we can. Just because one type of action won't fix everything doesn't mean we can afford not to do it.
posted by D.C. at 1:55 PM on April 22, 2008

Less new plastic consumption = less demand for nurdles.

The problem is, we use plastics for almost everything we do. Our computers are made out of plastic. My office phone is made out of plastic. My chair is a metal-and-plastic contraption, with nylon fabric covering the seat. The paint on my desk is a plastic polymer, as is the wallpaper on my office walls. My car is mostly plastic - the steering wheel, the dashboard, the floor mats. The food I eat - well, I don't use plastic bags anymore - is not plastic, so we can skip dinner, but the carpeting of my apartment is plastic. My tv is plastic. My sheets are rayon. I have a plastic shower curtain. My son's toys are all plastic.

Plastic is part of everything.
posted by KokuRyu at 2:05 PM on April 22, 2008

I saw an ad on tv last night for disposable plates. The message was, if you love your children, you'll spend time with them instead of washing the dishes. So now you're a bad parent if you wash your dishes instead of throwing them away every night.
posted by joannemerriam at 2:26 PM on April 22, 2008

SciencePunk: I don't think anyone claims the gyre is the most polluted place on earth. The fact that it is so far from everything and that there is so much garbage out there that is what is alarming. I am not sure what a sensible definition of a "piece of plastic" would have to be to make sense of the densities you quote, but every single image of garbage gathered from the gyre seems to contradict your figures.

While plastic bags are not seen floating in the ocean, I think it is disturbing enough to see the few plastic bags wrapped around tree branches in pretty much any city in North America. Moreover, that fact that they are not seen floating in the ocean says nothing about their impact in the food chain, and the real problem is that these plastics break down to very small pieces and are consumed and accumulated by living organisms.

Similarly, the amount of plastic used to package almost everything is abhorrent, no doubt, but there is no reason why bio-degradable packaging or other alternatives cannot be used. Reducing consumption of plastic bags, or items that make excessive use of plastic packaging does have a much greater impact than indifference and stop energy -- it is not just a feel good policy.

The fact that every organism on earth lives at the expense of another has nothing to do with pollution, or the use of materials which pose direct or indirect health risks to ourselves. It is clear that the real long term solutions have yet to surface, but it will take time and effort. Small progress, such as encouraging people to invest in a reusable grocery bag, or encouraging companies to invest in biodegradable packaging or to reduce packaging, goes a long way.

KokuRyu: you are absolutely right. Plastic is a very convenient material, and that is why it is so prevalent. The problem is that the total cost of the impact of plastic is not taken into account. As has been pointed out above by other, the cost of disposing of plastic is getting higher and higher, and soon enough governments will start imposing restrictions, either in the form of taxation or outright bans, which will encourage businesses to seek out alternatives. The anticipation of these problems and the development of viable solutions can be seen as a great business opportunity. Moreover, pressure form consumers can also act as an incentive. Note that MEC pulled the polycarbonate bottles from their shelves well before the Canadian government made any announcements about bans of the plastic -- all this thanks to pressure from consumers.

There is a lot that can be done by very small changes to our buying habits.
posted by TheyCallItPeace at 2:29 PM on April 22, 2008

most plastics are not biodegradable

It's my understanding that even "biodegradable" plastics simply break down into tiny pieces of plastic. They don't really biodegrade.
posted by Stylus Happenstance at 2:37 PM on April 22, 2008

Part IV (The Index Fossil)
-Bad Religion

We're widespread and well fed,
The earth's rotating fate is in our head, oh yeah.
We're dominant and prominent,
And our diety's omnipotent, oh yeah.
And immortality's in our mastermind,
And we destroy everything we can find.
And tomorrow when the human clock stops and the world stops turning,
We'll be an index fossil buried in our own debris.
We're listless, promiscuous,
And life to us is either hit or miss, oh yeah.
We're savoir faire and debonaire
And things we do are done with pride and care, oh yeah.
And immortality's in our mastermind,
And we destroy everything that we find.
And tomorrow when the human clock stops and the world stops turning,
We'll be an index fossil buried in our own debris.
See, immortality's in our mastermind,
And we destroy everything that we find.
And tomorrow when the human clock stops and the world stops turning,
We'll be an index fossil buried in our own debris.
In our own debris.
posted by black8 at 3:03 PM on April 22, 2008

I am no expert, but according to Wikipedia there are plastics (bioplastics) that do decompose, as opposed to just break down into smaller pieces. Some of these are even edible apparently, which reminds me of popcorn being used as packaging by Lush and edible food wrappers currently being developed.
posted by TheyCallItPeace at 3:15 PM on April 22, 2008

Since we're quoting pop lyrics right now (quoting rock lyrics as a response to social issues takes me back to high school, or at least my freshman year at university):

Humans From Earth
T-bone Burnett
(Until The End Of The World)

We come from a blue planet light-years away
Where everything multiplies at an amazing rate
We're out here in the universe buying real estate
Hope we haven't gotten here too late

We're humans from earth
We're humans from earth
You have nothing at all to fear
I think we're gonna like it here

We're looking for a planet with atmosphere
Where the air is fresh and the water clear
With lots of sun like you have here
Three or four hundred days a year


Bought Manhatten for a string of beads
Brought along some gadgets for you to see
Heres a crazy little thing we call TV
Do you have electricity?


I know we may seem pretty strange to you
But we got know-how and a golden rule
We're here to see manifest destiny through
Ain't nothing we can't get used to

We're humans from earth
We're humans from earth
posted by KokuRyu at 3:17 PM on April 22, 2008

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

it felt appropriate.
posted by exlotuseater at 4:21 PM on April 22, 2008

You can have my Nalgene bottle when you pry it from my cold, hydrated, hand.
posted by Tube at 4:25 PM on April 22, 2008

SciencePunk: "I wrote about the Pacific gyre on my site, and it's still one of the most contentious articles on there. There is plastic caught in the gyre - about one piece per million square metres.

Let's be clear here. When you look at data collected from observations of floating debris from ships, one finds that there are a pretty low number of bits of debris per unit area*. When someone actually went out and dragged a net along in the area and analyzed the catch, they found 334,271 pieces of plastic per km2 with a mass of 5.114kg per km2. This number is much higher because the bits of plastic are small: you wouldn't see them from a boat. You were obviously well aware of this study, since you quote the results on your site, so why do you feel the need to mislead people here?

*BTW, you'd look more credible if you used the same units as your sources, the reasonable square kilometre, rather than trying to make the data look less significant by using the equivalent term of a million square metres.
posted by ssg at 4:56 PM on April 22, 2008

Agreed with KokuRyu. The topic was great, but I was turned off by the inarticulate, high-school journalist approach of the correspondent. There's no reason to say "like...there's fucking plastic in the fucking ocean. fuckety fuck." Makes me less interested in what the piece is saying.
posted by debris at 5:26 PM on April 22, 2008

You've hit the nail on the head in that plastic bags are a very visible form of pollution - so tend to invoke people's ire quite a lot.

Switching to biodegradable packaging presents its own set of difficulties - things don't just quietly rot in landfill, they decompose anaerobically, producing, for example, methane - a potent greenhouse gas. I'm afraid there's no simple answers to waste management.

I presented the best data there was, by citing garbage incidence in the N. Pacific area compared to other areas using data collected by equivalent methods. And I assumed readers here were intelligent enough to know what 1 million square metres equated. Please don't accuse me of trying to mislead people, simply because you've had difficulty with these concepts.
posted by SciencePunk at 1:51 AM on April 23, 2008

SciencePunk: Your original statement above made absolutely no mention of comparison with other areas. When you cherry-pick obviously inferior data and state it is categorical fact, you are aiming to mislead. You knew there was other data out there, with a much better sampling method, and you chose to ignore it to make your point.
posted by ssg at 2:26 PM on April 23, 2008

I'm afraid there's no simple answers to waste management.

Hey, Mr. Science Punk? Far be it from me to question your seeing the forest for the trees, but there is a simple answer which, for some illogical, possibily insane reason, you're chosing to ignore.

Don't create the waste in the first place.
posted by loquacious at 3:24 PM on April 23, 2008

from=for, etc. Need coffee.
posted by loquacious at 3:24 PM on April 23, 2008

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