December 31, 2011

Maine Voices: In Maine and around the world, oceans, shores filling with plastic

Recycling won't do much to help. To reduce the burden, we need to use and waste less plastic.

By HAROLD JOHNSON

SACO - Toothbrushes, golf balls, glue-sticks, pacifiers, lip balm, kids' toys, deodorant roller balls, combs, printer cartridges, pens and markers, pregnancy tests, clothes pins.

These are just some of the ordinary plastic household items found inside the stomachs of dead albatross on Midway, a remote island chain in the heart of the Pacific Ocean. Every year, thousands of albatross die from consuming plastics that have floated in on the waves. Midway lies 1,200 miles from civilization.

This is just one heartbreaking -- and completely predictable -- result of a plasticized global culture.

By now most people have heard of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch -- the swirl of plastics floating in the deep ocean, far from land. Midway and Kamilo Beach, Hawaii, are its poster children.

But what most people don't know is that this garbage patch isn't alone. Every ocean in the world now has plastic swirling in it. There's plastic in the Sargasso Sea. Plastic washes up on the Azores. Eighty percent of Arctic fulmars have plastic in their bellies. Islands and inlets around Australia's Great Barrier Reef are choked with it. It's everywhere.

Including the Maine coast. Plastic comes onshore with every tide. I've studied flotsam at Bay View Beach in Saco for the past year and a half. The realities are sobering. Tampon applicators, a hypodermic needle, sauce packets, squirt nozzles, combs, car seat vinyl, a plasticized menu from a defunct Bar Harbor restaurant -- thousands of pieces, in one small stretch of one beach. Many with obvious fish bite marks.

Elsewhere, it's the same story. Lubec has plastic amid its coastal rocks. Otter Cove in Acadia National Park has plastic in it. Curtis Cove in Biddeford collects so much that there is literally plastic every step of the way.

How could this happen?

How could it not? We have filled our households and our lives with stuff we use for a month or a day or five minutes, but which persists for a dozen lifetimes. The average American goes through 220 pounds of plastic a year.

Garbage has always escaped from the waste stream. (Not to mention from windstorms, floods and worse disasters.) It always will. Despite our best efforts. Now that most garbage is plastic, every escapee adds to the persistent fouling of our shores and waters.

Nothing eats plastic, nothing biodegrades it. Those K-cups, straws, toothpaste tubes, grocery bags, takeout boxes, single-serve sauce packs, disposable razors -- they don't go away. (Cigarette butts, either. They're plastic -- you knew that, right?)

Every piece of plastic that's escaped a hand, bag, dumpster, trash truck, landfill or recycling plant still exists, even if crumbled into small bits beyond recognition. Each will foul a shore, collect toxins or kill a sea creature. It's what plastic does.

Columbia University calculates that at least 73 million pounds of plastic now floats in the world's oceans. (That doesn't count denser plastics that sink.) That's what we've managed to do, in just two generations.

Recycling is often touted as an answer. But true one-to-one plastic recycling is extremely hard, expensive -- and rare. Most recycled plastic is just downcycled at best, and ever more virgin plastic is required to restock store shelves.

Worse, most plastic that the United States recycles gets dumped on China, to be turned into packaging and cheap consumer goods for our big-box stores. Have you noticed that everything in our households is plastic now? Thank the huge glut of material that we've dutifully recycled and turned into an ultra-cheap resource.

Besides, recycling rhetoric overlooks the obvious: Plastic blows out of recycling bins, recycling trucks and recycling centers just as easily as it escapes trash cans and landfills.

So, how do we clean up the ocean and get a fresh start? How do we ensure that our children will enjoy clean shores like our grandparents did?

We don't. There is no "plastic magnet." There's no vacuum that will suck up plastic but spare the planktonic base of the global food web. In time, the ocean may spit its filth back onshore for us to collect and dispose of properly. But that works only if we stop force-feeding it. And that will happen only if we commit to using less plastic and wasting less plastic.

Plastics certainly have their benefits and their place. But our gross overuse of them has polluted nearly every last pristine, remote place left in the world, as well as our own backyard. It's time to change the game.

Harold Johnson lives in Saco and writes about marine debris on the blog www.theflotsamdiaries.org.

 

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