Synthetic Sea

I grew up in a world of that miracle substance, plastic: the lightweight but sturdy substance that could replace breakable glass. I remember drinking cherry Kool-Aid from colored plastic tumblers made by Tupperware. My brothers assembled airplane model kits of World War II made with a gray brittle plastic. My sister had plastic snap beads I loved to pull apart and snap together again. Our vinyl shower curtain gave off a distinct smell, one I am still fond of today and that I link to feeling fresh and clean.

At the time, I never considered what was set in motion by the mass production of plastic beginning after World War II. The polymers that make up plastic are so strong they are totally nonbiodegradable. Plastic litter from cities or garbage dumps can easily be blown by the wind into creeks and carried to the ocean. One exceptionally high concentration of plastics in the ocean is known as The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which extends from the coast of California all the way to Japan. As much as 80 percent of this garbage comes from land pollution that drifts out to sea and becomes trapped by the North Pacific Gyre: four major currents create a huge whirlpool, sucking up the plastic like a hungry sea monster.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is deceptive because the most of the debris is invisible by aircraft or satellite. When Charles Moore, a sailor and oceanographer, first discovered the patch, he found “shampoo caps and soap bottles and plastic bags and fishing floats as far as I could see.” That is when he alerted a team of scientists to study how much plastic was actually trapped in the North Pacific Gyre. Through more than 100 random samples spanning over 1,700 miles, they found more plastic lay beneath the surface than above. It turns out many plastics photo-degrade fairly quickly, and some debris can break down within a year to the size of confetti, remaining in the upper water column. Charles Moore has estimated the mass of The Great Pacific Garbage Patch at 100 million tons! Some scientists believe the patch is larger than the continental US, whereas others believe it is much smaller, more like the size of Texas. Either way, the pollution is massive, and it is almost impossible to measure in its entirety.

Whatever the exact size of The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the greatest problem is some of these plastics break down into particles the size of zooplankton, which fish and other sea animals mistake as food. In some places in the ocean scientists have determined these particles outnumber zooplankton by six to one. Sea turtles swallow this plastic, which clogs their intestines, causing them to miss out on vital nutrients, and they starve to death. Seabirds undergo a similar ordeal, mistaking plastic pellets for fish eggs, small crab, and other prey, sometimes even feeding the pellets to their young. Rebecca Hosking, a British wildlife filmmaker, discovered that “two-fifths of the 500,000 Laysan albatross chicks born on Midway Island die each year, the prime suspect being plastic that their parents have fed to them.” She found toothbrushes, cigarette lighters, even asthma inhalers rotting in the thousands of albatross carcasses strewn all over the beach. According to Ocean Medical International, plastic debris has been found in the stomachs of 63 of the world’s approximately 250 species of seabirds.

Starvation is not the only problem plastic creates for these sea animals. When plastics break down, they release toxic chemicals such as styrene trimer, a polystyrene byproduct, and bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical used in hard plastics of reusable water bottles and the linings of aluminum cans. Bisphenol A has been shown to interfere with the reproductive systems of animals by mimicking estradiol, the female sex hormone, while styrene monomer is a suspected carcinogen.

Floating plastics also act like a sponge and absorb other pollutants from seawater, including PCBs and DDT. These toxin-containing plastic pieces are eaten by jellyfish and then larger fish, eventually resulting in human ingestion of toxic chemicals. The entire food chain becomes tainted. I am reminded of the saying by Chief Seattle, “Humankind has not woven the web of life. We are but one thread within it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves.” We humans have created a Frankenstein in the web of life, and its name is plastic.

“Between 250 and 300 million tons of plastic are produced every year,” said Charles Moore. “To get that into terms you can understand, every two years we make enough plastic to be the equivalent of the weight of the 7 billion people on earth.” When people use plastic bags, drink from plastic bottles, use plastic wrap, we continue to contribute to this mass pollution, for as little as 5 percent of total plastics produced in the world are recycled.

This issue became a reality for me when my friend Richard began cleaning up the beaches of Pt. Reyes National Seashore. While beachcombing, he has found yards and yards of synthetic ropes used for fish netting, syringes, candy wrappers, cigarette lighters, tampon applicators, little plastic toys, tons of bottle caps, and pieces of plastic so broken down you cannot recognize its original use.

Within one year, he collected enough plastic soda and water bottles to fill three huge eight-foot containers he made into art pieces of mesh wire in the shape of giant water bottles: Russian dolls filled with human negligence. These beaches are relatively clean compared to urban beaches, yet he collected approximately 3,500 bottles himself. This doesn’t even count garbage collected by other folks on beach clean-up days. And much of this plastic eventually would have been swept out to sea, contributing to the The Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

After realizing how plastic breaks down in the ocean, entering into the food chain for sea life, I stopped buying bottled water. I couldn’t stomach the thought of disposing one more plastic bottle that may never reach a recycling center. I cringe every time I serrate a piece of Saran Wrap and cover a piece of cold chicken. Where will this plastic wrap really end up? And though I most often bring in a reusable cloth bag for hauling out my groceries or other sundries, sometimes I forget and all of a sudden realize all my goods were put into a plastic bag. I am in a hurry and cannot ask them to re-bag into paper. I walk away feeling terribly guilty. I applaud the city of San Francisco for banning the use of plastic bags in grocery stores, as has Portland and coastal North Carolina, and I hope more cities soon follow.

Meanwhile, the sea turtles keep ingesting plastic bags, mistaking them for jellyfish dying. Albatross swallow bottle caps and feed plastic pellets to their young. Humans eat fish contaminated by chemicals released into the ocean as plastic breaks down. The toxic cycle continues as more plastic is produced and disposed of. While the North Pacific Gyre keeps spinning, somewhere along Point Reyes National Seashore, Richard stoops over to pick up one more bottle cap to add to thirty-five pounds of trash he hauls out in a Hefty bag in hopes it never sees daylight bobbing up and down in the ocean.
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