Plastics pandemic

From “The Graduate” 1967.  Mr. McGuire’s career advice to the young Benjamin (Dustin Hoffman):

Mr. McGuire: I want to say one word to you. Just one word.
Benjamin: Yes, sir.
Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?
Benjamin: Yes, I am.
Mr. McGuire: Plastics.
Benjamin: Just how do you mean that, sir?
Mr. McGuire: There’s a great future in plastics. Think about it. Will you think about it?
Ben: Yes I will.
Mr. McGuire: Shh! Enough said. That’s a deal.

Oh how right Mr. McGuire was.  From various websites I’ve culled a few of the dozens of terrifying facts about our love affair with plastic.

When I was in Vietnam and Cambodia this spring I saw what happens when everybody uses plastic and plastic waste management is virtually non-existent.  This photo is from the Phillippines, but I saw the same thing in Cambodia:

Plastic Bags

Each year, an estimated 500 billion to 1 trillion plastic bags are consumed worldwide. That comes out to over one million per minute. Billions end up as litter each year.

Plastic bags don’t biodegrade, they photodegrade—breaking down into smaller and smaller toxic bits contaminating soil and waterways and entering the food web when animals accidentally ingest.

Windblown plastic bags are so prevalent in Africa that a cottage industry has sprung up harvesting bags and using them to weave hats, and even bags. According to the BBC, one group harvests 30,000 per month.

Plastic water bottles

Americans bought 8.3 billion gallons of bottled water in 2006.

Producing PET bottles uses more than 17 million barrels of oil and produces over 2.5 million tons of carbon dioxide each year.  For each gallon of water that goes into a PET bottle, two gallons of water are used to make the plastic bottles and purify the water . 462 million gallons of oil are needed each year to transport water bottles from the factory to the point of sale.

Plastic residues

In the North Pacific, an enormous gyre (slowly circulating spiral of water) is now known as the “Eastern Garbage Patch. The currents here tend to force any floating material into the low energy central area of the gyre where it stays in the gyre, in astounding quantities estimated at six kilos of plastic for every kilo of naturally occurring plankton.  This tower of trash covers an area the size of Texas. This is only one of several gigantic gyres in the world’s oceans.

Larger plastic items are consumed by seabirds and other animals which mistake them for prey. Many seabirds and their chicks have been found dead, their stomachs filled with medium sized plastic items such as bottle tops, lighters and balloons. It has been estimated that over a million sea-birds and one hundred thousand marine mammals and sea turtles are killed each year by ingestion of plastics or entanglement.

This poor albatross must have had a horrible stomach ache before he died.

Dutch scientists have counted around 110 pieces of litter for every square kilometre of the seabed, a staggering 600,000 tons in the North Sea alone. These plastics can smother the sea bottom and kill the marine life which is found there.

For more information see Green Sangha – Lots and lots of good stuff, including a Powerpoint presentation  you can use to spread the word.

Also see Reusable Bags

Best of Life magazine on the ocean gyres.

And this video on the Garbage Patch:

I’ve been using cloth bags when I shop for a long time. Now I’m washing and re-using the plastic baggies that I seem to accumulate regardless.  Your ideas welcome.

2 responses to “Plastics pandemic

  1. I used to go through cases of bottled water, feeling ever so virtuous because I recycled each and every bottle. Then I started reading the articles telling me just how much energy was consumed in making/transporting the bottles. Now I use a Sigg water bottle, which I bought just before about a million other people decided to, according to the Reusable Bags web site, as the Sigg bottles are really hard to find now. I also use one of Reusable Bags market baskets, which I really really love. Easier to pack than the cloth bags, and it holds a lot.

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