The Weekly Beaker: Plastic Aplenty! (or, Why Recycle?)
Published: Monday, November 12, 2012
Updated: Monday, November 12, 2012 19:11
Almost every piece of plastic that has ever been created is still in existence today. It takes about 1,000 years for a plastic bag or water bottle to decompose naturally and a plastic milk jug about 1 million years (a latex condom takes 30). As plastics degrade, they release toxic chemicals, which can’t be metabolized by flora or fauna.
Plastics are made from polymers, enormous molecules consisting of smaller monomers strung together. The first modern plastic precursor emerged in the 1850s, courtesy of British inventor Alexander Parkes. But his product was a little too flammable (Woops!) and a little too brittle to gain the attention that later compounds would. In 1907 the American chemist Leo Baekeland created a much more viable version that caught the public eye. Soon after, we got cellophane and Scotch tape, and it was all downhill from there. (It’s important to note that cellophane was voted the third most beautiful English word in 1940, behind mother and memory.)
Today, the plastic industry thrives: 600 billion pounds of plastic are created and consumed yearly, in 2009, Americans alone used 102 billion plastic grocery bags, enough to encircle the Earth 776 times. The bottled water industry has capitalized as well. It grosses $8 billion a year in the United States and about $100 billion worldwide. As a point of reference, WorldWatch estimates that it would take $19 billion to globally eradicate hunger and malnutrition, $10 billion for access to clean drinking water for all and $5 billion to achieve universal literacy.
Americans go through 50 billion water bottles every year and 28 percent of them get recycled. The rest end up either incinerated or in landfills or the ocean—a quantity bolstered by the approximately 150,000 tons of plastic waste dumped into the oceans annually by the global fishing industry. In the ocean, plastics tend to circulate with ocean currents and accumulate in gyres, or vortexes caused by rotating currents (think of a gyroscope) where waste products often compile in the center and kind of just float.
The North Pacific Gyre is the world’s largest ecosystem. It stretches from the Philippines up to Alaska, along America’s West Coast and Central America and then follows the equator back to East Asia. This gyre has become the home of the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch.” The name really says it all. In the middle of the North Pacific Gyre float millions of submerged islands of plastic curios discarded by Americans and the rest of the consumption-minded world.
The true size of the “Garbage Patch” is unknown because it mostly consists of chemical morass and smaller chunks of plastic suspended underneath the water’s surface. Yet its effects on wildlife are far from invisible. For example, Midway Atoll, of World War II fame, is situated in the North Pacific, 2,000 miles from any continent. It is a remote marine sanctuary, and home to a million and a half albatrosses. Almost all of them have plastic in their digestive tract, and about a third of the chicks die when their parents survey the ocean and mistake a small plastic toy as food for their young. Similarly, around one million sea creatures are killed each year by marine debris.
Much of the salmon caught for human cuisine comes from the Pacific Ocean. If the salmon have toxins from plastic in their bodies, that means we do too. Things like that usually come full circle.
On a bright note, there are ways we can help alleviate this problem using recycling systems that are already in place. Recycled plastic can be made into trashcans, park benches, kayaks, clothing, detergent bottles, carpeting, outdoor deck material and more. Recycling plastic saves twice the energy that would be used to incinerate it. About 20 million Hershey’s Kisses are wrapped each day, and all of that foil (133 sq. miles worth) is recyclable. And recycling one ton of paper saves 17 trees, an average of 1260 miles worth of gasoline, six months worth of power for the average home and 60 pounds of pollution. Those 17 trees also absorb 250 pounds of CO2 annually from the atmosphere. So, if you recycle, maybe a tree will hug you.