Originally published in The Weekly Packet, August 22, 2013
Warning: plastics are poisoning the planet, says speaker at Marine Environmental Research Institute
by Rich Hewitt
America’s infatuation with disposable plastic products is, in fact, a “toxic love story,” that is literally poisoning the planet.
That was the message from environmental activist Ann Luskey who was the guest speaker last week at the Marine Environmental Research Institute’s 2013 Ocean Matters Lecture series.
“Plastic is everywhere,” Luskey told a packed house at the MERI center last week.
We have been seduced by the plastics industry, she said.
“Plastics are cheap, accessible, easy to use and easy to throw away,” she said. “But if the makers were held accountable for the disposal [of these products] they would be completely unaffordable.”
It is not known what the overall impact plastic is having on the marine environment, Luskey said. But it is undeniable that it is having an impact.
About 70 percent of all trash found in the oceans is plastic. The heavier stuff sinks to the bottom, the lighter particles of all sizes float in the water column.
“It is everywhere,” she said. “It is in our oceans, in the desert, in the mountains. It is on Mount Everest. It is in the fish. It is in our bodies.”
Plastic is in every community in the world, even the most remote: from Marshall Island in Maine to the most remote island around the Galapagos. It is even found in the Sargasso Sea.
Communities of albatross on Pacific Ocean islands are dying because the adults identify plastic as a food source and are feeding it to their young.
Luskey showed slides of dissected fish and the contents of their stomachs. While there was some normal, organic matter found, much of what was in their stomachs was plastic.
Researchers estimate that 100 percent of the fish in the oceans have eaten plastic.
Whales get entangled in plastic fishing lines. Sea turtles mistake floating plastic bags for their favorite food—jelly fish—and suffocate when they try to eat it.
Plastic is different than other trash in that it is toxic. It is made mainly from petrochemicals and although it does not decompose, it does break down and in that process it releases the chemicals from which it was made.
Even intact plastic bottles leach chemicals into the water they contain, Luskey said.
“Plastic water bottles have a sell-by date on them,” she said. “The water doesn’t go bad, the bottle goes bad.”
Plastic, she said, creates pollution at every step of its life from when it is made, its use and its disposal. And it does not decompose.
“Every bit of plastic that was ever made still exists, even the plastic that has been burned and become toxic particles,” she said. “Plastic is a material the earth cannot digest.”
Plastic particles also attract other toxic particles that can be ingested by wildlife on land and in the ocean and in that way gets into the food chain.
Disposable, single-use plastic items are the main source of plastic pollution, and plastic bags and plastic bottles are the most pervasive of those items. Every five minutes, Luskey said, we in the U.S. throw away enough plastic bottles to cover eight football fields in a thick layer of bottles. Each week, we throw away enough plastic water bottles to stretch five times around the planet.
Luskey referred to the great Pacific garbage patch, a large collection of marine trash located in the Pacific Ocean between Hawaii and California that, along with a wide variety of other trash, contains a large amount of plastic debris. It is not an island of trash as some have described it, but a collection that floats in the water column at different levels, sometimes thick and deep, in other areas, thin and narrow.
Although there have been some attempts to devise a way to remove the trash from the ocean, it has become intertwined with the natural ocean life and the trash cannot be removed without removing valuable ocean species.
“We can’t take it out,” she said. “We have to stop putting it in.”
And that was a key point of Luskey’s talk. Recycling doesn’t work—less than 10 percent of plastics are recycled nationwide. And even in areas where plastic beverage bottles can be redeemed for cash, less than half of those bottles are turned in.
The key to stemming the tide of plastics use, she said, is to “refuse” plastics in our everyday lives.
“Your dollars dictate what will be produced,” she said.
Use reusable bags at the grocery store. Use metal or glass containers for beverages. Don’t use plastic straws.
There are a number of movements around the country such as “Ban the Bag,” an effort to eliminate the use of plastic bags. Luskey noted that Rwanda has banned plastic bags throughout the country and other countries are considering similar actions.
There is information on the Internet, she said, offering information on alternatives to plastic. She suggested that it is possible to organize plastic-free events at schools or other community events.