Thursday, April 24, 2008

What we didn't expect from plastics

Dateline Earth
Earth Day
Stuart Moody

DID YOU GO shopping in the past week? If so, you probably brought home some plastic. Plastics are everywhere - in our office supplies, our refrigerators, our cars, our buildings, our clothes. This proliferation of plastic represents the ingenuity and enterprise of modern industry. Where this ingenuity has led us, though, is not to a bright future.

Plastics were discovered in the 1860s. Celluloid, made of treated cellulose, replaced amber, horn and ivory for buttons, knife handles, combs, even billiard balls. Thousands of elephants' lives were saved.

Why, then, aren't we celebrating the era of synthetics that followed? It starts with non-biodegradability. Plastics are long-chain polymers that resist breakdown by any organism. Experts on marine plastics believe that every piece of plastic ever made still exists. Nylon may be an exception to this rule. A 1997 study found that a white-rot fungus could break nylon down. Should these results apply in the field, our nylon cast-offs, if they stay on land, have a chance of re-entering the cycle of life, death and decay. The rest of our plastic inventions do not.

In 2006, the United States produced 56 million tons of plastic. What are we doing with these tons of materials when they complete their useful lives?

In 2001, a mass of plastic debris in surface waters of the Pacific Ocean was estimated to be the size of Texas. Now it may be as large as the continental United States! In these waters are one million particles of plastic per square kilometer. Around the world, creatures of all sizes are ingesting plastic debris. Jellyfish, seabirds, whales, sea turtles, lugworms - all are taking in particles, shards and strips of plastic.

Nobody is happy about this. The American Chemistry Council has launched a $5.4 million campaign to promote proper disposal of plastics. If we can stop littering and recycle instead, it asserts, our crisis will be solved. But other problems are built into plastic.

- Dispersal. Materials escape throughout plastics' lifecycles: emissions during production; abrasion during use; off-gassing and leaching into products; discarding when pieces are contaminated or worn out. Consider the plastic recycling bin that you drag across the pavement. All the particles that are worn off don't disappear; they go into soil and water.

- Dependence. When California cities began to consider restrictions on plastic bags, the Progressive Bag Alliance began to promote recycling instead. In 2006, its best estimate of recycled content possible in plastic bags was about 17 percent. Recycling bags may lower the amount of petrochemicals used for production, but does not end our dependence on them.

- Down-cycling. In most cases, plastic articles get reprocessed into lower-grade products. Plastic jugs get made into things like flower pots and pails, not new jugs. These secondary products are usually not recyclable. Recycled plastic bags often go into wood-plastic lumber, which abrades and off-gasses during use, emits toxic fumes if burned and does not get recycled when a property is remodeled. Consider, too, the sawdust.

- Danger. Many modern disorders, including asthma, cancer, diabetes, obesity and premature puberty, are associated with chemicals in plastics. We are just beginning to learn about the effects of accumulating synthetics in our bodies. Do we want to keep exposing ourselves to more of these chemicals while we await further research?

A prudent approach to this crisis is simple: Avoid plastic wherever and whenever you can.

Need ideas? Check with Earth Resource, Greenpeace, or Green Sangha. The same creativity and drive that accidentally produced this crisis can be harnessed to reverse the waste and pollution.
All it takes is your desire to do something now.

Stuart Moody is on the Executive Committee of Green Sangha, a spiritually based environmental action group with chapters in Marin, the East Bay & Sonoma County.


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