AUBURN — As my wife, Kath, and I drove down the wooded road, plastic bags blew gently beside it. Some had flown up into the trees, where they fluttered gracefully in the wind.
Really, there was an unexpected grace and beauty to the process, and had I just arrived from another world, I would have admired their beauty, and wondered if they were not a life form.
I’m from here, though, and rather than a life form, I realize that plastic bags are a death form. They become landfills that do not decompose or degrade, storm sewers that clog and back up, litter that needs to be cleaned up and an expense to our cities and taxpayers at every turn. But it’s when they make their way to a lake, stream or river that will take them on a course to the ocean that they become a real death form.
In every square mile of ocean, there are 46,000 pieces of plastic, according to a U.N. study. Plastic in the ocean will slowly break into small pieces and be nibbled at by tiny fish. But it will remain as plastic and maintain its toxicity whether it becomes a part of the smaller fish’s body, and then a part of a larger fish’s body, and, when we eat that fish, a part of ours.
Turtles look at plastic bags in the ocean, consider them jellyfish, swallow them and jam their digestive systems, and can no longer consume food. Albatross mothers skim the ocean to feed their nestlings, as they have for millennia. Now, however, 60 percent of the nestlings die, and autopsies show a tragic spew of plastic bits and pieces have filled their digestive tracts.
In fact, there are gyres of plastic in every ocean where nothing lives. Plastic fills a swirling mass of current convergence where there is no life form, only plastic.
The largest gyre is in the Pacific. At its smallest, it’s twice the size of Texas. When conditions allow it to expand, it covers an area almost as large as the United States.
Having used plastic increasingly for around 50 years, we have destroyed large areas of life in the ocean. If you told your mom you had done that, she would be incredibly upset. And yet we must realize that we all have done it, and, unless we change our habits abruptly, we will destroy the oceans entirely.
“No more plastic bags!” I said. “Making and transporting paper bags creates four times the carbon emissions,” said Kath, and carbon emissions are damaging the sea, too.
The ocean is taking in much of our carbon, and that is causing it to acidify. In 20 years, clams and other shellfish will not be able to make new shells. Our baby lobster population is half the size it was in 2007.
And in warmer waters, acidification is destroying coral reefs, which are critical breeding and living ground for much sea life, and a barrier to storm surges.
In Maine, the ocean level is clearly rising, and we are 2 degrees warmer than we were 44 years ago. No more paper bags, either!
Clearly, when we see the light, we have usually been lucky enough to change in time, all too often by the skin of our teeth. So let’s put a citywide, a statewide, a nationwide, a worldwide restriction on unnecessary packaging and the unnecessary use of packaging. Twenty-five percent of the nations in the world have made this good decision, and made it most easily when they were coastal and the damage became obvious to them.
Let’s also realize how universal plastic has become, as has its litter, in the beverages we drink, the cups and straws we use, the toys we give our children, even the ropes with which we moor our boats and lobster traps.
We need to eliminate all plastic that is not recyclable; set up recycling plants to adapt to the new, re-used material (“Waste not, want not” is a great Maine saying); eliminate the use of plastic that is not set for recycling; have strong anti-litter laws, and help keep Maine both beautiful and bountiful.
I am not from another world, nor can I go there, nor can you, nor can our children. We must respect and protect this one. A plastic-coated world has little appeal, should there be a living creature left to appeal to.
Let’s all keep plastic out of the ocean, and restrict both plastic and paper bags. The most effective way to work toward this goal is a modest charge for any packaging at the checkout counter.
— Special to the Press Herald