Let Them Eat Plastic

No cake until you finish your plasticSome stories seem to fall easily—almost naturally—into the urban myths and legends category, often because they're . . . well, because they're so much stranger than fiction. But therein lies the danger, because some of those stories are not only true, but disastrous in their implications.

Not long ago, someone mentioned a program she had seen—on PBS, no doubt—about an enormous collection of trash somewhere near the Hawaiian islands. This wasn't completely surprising considering how many people inhabit this planet; we do generate a lot of trash, and some of it is going to wind up in our oceans. But when she said that this trash collection is the size of Texas, I had to laugh. Something that size wouldn't be exactly invisible. Someone would have noticed it, and taken pictures, and those pictures would have been on the evening news. Later that day, just to satisfy my curiosity, I decided to do a quick search.

As it turned out, she was a bit off on the size of this floating dump. It isn't the size of Texas; it's twice the size of Texas, and it's just one of several. Referred to as the Eastern Garbage Patch and located halfway between San Francisco and Hawaii, it's an enormous expanse of junk—nearly 90% of which is plastic, it seems—trapped by a system of ocean currents that hold it in place, mostly. Sometimes, in the words of one oceanographer, it barfs.

"It moves around like a big animal without a leash," said Ebbesmeyer, an oceanographer in Seattle and leading expert on currents and marine debris. "When it gets close to an island, the garbage patch barfs, and you get a beach covered with this confetti of plastic."

The quote comes from a Los Angeles Times article, and although there's much more on the subject out there on the Net, this excellent piece is a good place to start. In case you're wondering, as I did, about the lack of photographic evidence, one more snippet from the same article ought to answer that question.

. . . the Pacific spans millions of square miles, and even the debris circulating in the Eastern and Western garbage patches is often diffuse and hard to see, bobbing just below the surface.

Another thing that's hard to see is carbon dioxide, which is what's generated when plastic eventually breaks down after decades, or centuries, or even longer out there on the ocean. And plastic is, of course, a petroleum product, so if your mind begins to form disturbing connections as you read that Times article, it's probably no accident.

For me, this whole thing brings up another, more poignant question: Are we insane?


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