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A Planet Covered in Plastic?

May 4, 2013

by Meg Lowman

One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. —Aldo Leopold

An improvised dump of mostly plastic trash in Asia.

An improvised dump of mostly plastic trash in Asia.

A recent trip of Raleigh community leaders to advise the royalty of Johor, Malaysia on global conservation and create scientific exchange produced lifetime memories, as well as a photo album depicting many amazing landscapes strewn with plastic. This observation inspired numerous conversations during our travels about our global landscape, usually strewn with plastic.

Throughout Asia (and other continents), plastic trash is strewn along train tracks and roadsides, swirling in urban parking lots, nestled amidst tall grasses, embedded in fences, littering shorelines, and piled high in landfills. Plastic is viewed by some emerging countries as “progress.” My colleagues in India proudly explain that the ability to throw plastic away is a metric of their increasing economic status, reflecting the Americanization of their culture.

In Malaysia, they sold water bottled in Florida, and in America we buy water from Fiji! The ubiquitous plastic water bottle has revolutionized globalization, allowing tourists to visit tropical jungles without dehydration; providing hotels a safe way for guests to brush teeth without fear of dysentery; and offering fast food options to all corners of the planet. But data are emerging to confirm that our convenient, throw-away plastic technologies are taking a serious toll on Mother Nature, and also on human health.

Humans currently produce over 250 million tons of plastic per year. Over 30 billion plastic water bottles are bought and thrown away annually in the USA, but only an estimated 15% are recycled. Simple math reveals a remainder of 66 million bottles discarded each and every day throughout our country. Many of these bottles, and other plastic garbage, end up in the ocean, broken down into small particles technically called “nurdles.” In the Pacific Ocean, a plastic garbage patch estimated at twice the size of Texas floats amidst the vortex of oceanic currents. Swirling in the water column, nurdles eventually wash up onshore or are ingested by wildlife. In addition to their visual pollution, some plastic bottles contain polyethylene terephthalate (PET) that leaves a toxic residue. PET has been linked to breast cancer, prostate cancer, and diabetes.

Another insidious danger of throw-away plastic is that animals that ingest nurdles can suffer horrific deaths. The stomach contents of a green turtle off the Florida coast contained 74 foreign objects including latex balloons, hard plastic, carpet shards, and tar balls. Autopsies on dead seabirds nesting in isolated Pacific Islands reveal dozens of bits of plastic refuse, including caps of kids’ juice containers inadvertently fed by parents to baby birds, choking them. Many plastics are simply not breaking down as quickly or easily as predicted, with severe consequences to wildlife (and ultimately, to humans, since fish consumption increasingly transfers plastic particulates to us).

Throw-away plastic in India, Malaysia, and other developing countries represent the “Americanization” of their lifestyle. Can we Americans change that misconception by moving beyond plastic trash to a consumerism that reflects products that are kinder to nature, to the landscape, and to ourselves?

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Gator Woman permalink
    May 4, 2013 9:43 am

    Thank you for this very important posting~

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