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“Plastics!” That was the one-word career advice to Dustin Hoffman’s 20-year-old character in the 1967 movie “The Graduate.” The advice had merit as a young man’s business path: manufacture and use of plastics – which are commonly moldable, synthetic organic solids derived from petroleum – skyrocketed in the baby-boom years. Since the 1950s, about a billion tons of plastic articles – nylon stockings and motor parts, plastic forks, PVC plumbing, food packaging and rain gear, and on and on – have become trash.
Plastics are long organic polymers which are durable and resist degradation, which makes them useful for many purposes. Creative chemistry may be a plastic manufacturer’s most important product, but nature has no microbes capable of breaking up large, unknown organic molecules, no small organisms which easily biodegrade your discarded plastic fork into smaller organic molecules useful in building new life. Chemists design new plastics constantly, and nature simply hasn’t had enough time to design the right bacteria and other organisms to take them apart.
Plastic wastes which didn’t burn or decompose have given us the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” perhaps a million square miles of the North Pacific Ocean where plastic wastes float near the surface. Over time, the long polymers degrade very slowly, but the ocean tears some synthetic garbage into pieces which ocean creatures mistake for food. The plastic fragments are indigestible, and consumption is often fatal. Ocean currents herd plastic from North American and Asian shores into the Patch and hold it there, and thousands of ships have dumped their garbage into the sea, so the concentration of floating synthetics has skyrocketed in the decades since the Plastic Age began.
A Dallas-area couple reacted to reports of Pacific birds’ dying from eating plastics in a radical way; they committed to stop buying any articles made of plastic, or packaged in plastic, for a year. They cheerfully relate challenges during their year of abstinence, the temptations they resisted within our plastic-filled economy, in a blog, www.nonewplastic.com. My take is that it’s really hard for any of us to step outside mainstream, almost unconscious, habits of consumption like we have with our economy’s pervasive synthetics. It makes more sense for governments to establish rules and incentives that promote consumption and trash practices less toxic to natural systems, and which over time will themselves become accepted and mainstream.
Image by dierk schaefer [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons