An ocean of plastic

Sat, 01/06/2018 - 7:45am

New books are some of my favorite gifts, both to give and to receive. But sometimes they don’t get read immediately and end up in some pile, unread and forgotten. While searching around for something to read recently, I came upon one such book: “Plastic Ocean: How a Sea Captain’s Chance Discovery Launched a Determined Quest to Save the Oceans.”

“Plastic Ocean,” by Capt. Charles Moore, may have been published in 2011, but it is as relevant now as it was then, perhaps even more so, as Block Island’s plastic bag ban takes effect. While sailing his cataraman in the Pacific in 2007, Moore noticed a disturbing amount of floating plastic, and he is largely credited with the discovery of what is called the “great Pacific garbage patch.” So he sought about both bringing awareness to it, and studying it. 

He’s not an academic, or a scientist, and never finished college, and he found it hard to be taken seriously in scientific circles, but eventually he found partnerships with those more credentialed than he to assist with his studies. Moore eventually gained recognition in this field. It should be said that a certain amount of resentfulness infiltrates his writing, and Moore can seem a bit pesky at times; but then again, his message is important.

One of the most interesting things about this book is the history of plastic, a rather generic term in actuality. While we may think of plastic as having been invented in the mid 20th Century, the search for materials exhibiting its various qualities began much earlier when inventors started fooling around with rubber, and scientists began to discover the organic compounds that could be derived from petroleum. Thus, we have Charles Macintosh and the invention of the raincoat by that same name; Charles Goodyear (who was born in 1800) and the tire, and even nylon stockings. One of the more surprising instigators was the search for a better billiard ball. 

So, fast forward to a time when single-use plastic carryout bags seem, pun intended, no more than a drop in the ocean in terms of the larger problem, but those drops don’t go away. Moore chose to focus much of his research on plastics that have broken down… into just smaller and smaller bits of plastic that never truly disappear.

While others have focused on the scourge of plastic fishing nets, Moore set his sights on measuring the amount of plastics that had broken down to the size of phytoplankton and comparing the amount of each in samples of seawater. Ocean filter feeders that depend on phytoplankton are not apt to know the difference, and now that plastic is most likely working its way up the food chain and into our own diets.

Since plastic does not disappear, one may think that it’s a fairly inert substance, but evidently that’s not so. Over time, the various chemicals used to give the various types of plastics their unique qualities leach out, and yet still may cling to the surface, especially under high temperatures. While I will not attempt to explain the qualities of lipids, suffice it to say plastic has them, and lipids attract other lipids. So, not only do you have toxic chemicals often clinging to plastic, but that same plastic is attracting other toxins. Ironically, the plastics could help rid waters of toxic chemicals if used correctly. At the very least, it makes one think of the possible dangers in picking up plastic beach trash with your bare hands.

A vast amount of plastic is manufactured each year, and with little of it being recycled, a lot ends up in the ocean. It can come from spills from cargo ships carrying plastic goods and “nurdles” (small plastic pellets used to manufacture plastic goods), or from the the trash that flows down rivers and into the oceans, or from intentional dumping from ships, which is no longer allowed, but most likely still occurs. 

The disposable has replaced the more permanent in our lives to such an extent that we probably don’t second-guess consumer choices such as Bic and other plastic pens, disposable razors, and deli containers. Even if we wanted to, there is so much plastic in packaging it’s almost impossible to buy something without it. After all, plastic is cheap, and cheap is the mantra of too many businesses that want to improve their bottom lines. But we can make some choices — look to see if products we regularly use come in glass jars instead of plastic, get our takeout foods from restaurants that don’t use Styrofoam (more correctly called polystyrene), and replace our own home food storage containers with glass ones.

Of course there is much more that we can do in the area of choices we make. Think of it as a challenge — perhaps one worthy of a New Year’s resolution.