Mr. McGuire: I want to say one word to you. Just one word.
Benjamin: Yes sir.
Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?
Benjamin: Yes, I am.
Mr. McGuire: Plastics.
— From “The Graduate”
Directed by Mike Nichols, 1967
“The Graduate,” the iconic motion picture about Benjamin Braddock, an unfocused college graduate who has an affair with the mother of the young woman he loves and whose father’s business associate believes that the future is “plastics,” opened in mid-December, 1967. But, the vast majority of us who saw the film upon its initial release probably had to wait until 1968 before it came to a nearby theater. That was fifty years ago, and plastic was not the ubiquitous product that it is today.
As we laughed at the earnestness expressed in Mr. McGuire’s advise to Ben to consider a career in the plastic industry, it’s unlikely that any of us could have foreseen the terrible effects that plastics would have on our oceans, as well as other systems that affect our environment. But, during the past five decades, we have dumped millions of tons of plastic pollutants into our seas and oceans.
As the editors of The Week put it, you wouldn’t know how much plastic is in our oceans by “looking over the side of a ship, since much of the waste has been broken down by waves and ultraviolet light into micro plastics, particles often as small as a millimeter wide.” However these “micro-pollutants” are harmful to everything from coral reefs to fish to gigantic whales that consume them along with the plankton that is their major source of nourishment.
The plastic journey
Most ocean pollution starts out on the land. Discarded plastic is often very light in weight (take, for example, plastic grocery bags that were freely available at our supermarkets only last year). These plastic products are easily carried by wind and rain runoff to the sea. Plastics that collect in our streams and rivers ultimately become part of a nearly continuous accumulation of waste in our oceans. The Environmental Protection Agency reports that plastic is so durable that “every bit of plastic ever made still exists.”
Most plastic is not really biodegradable, even if its manufacturers try to convince the pubic that it is. It may take up to 700 years before plastic starts to degrade, but then it begins a process of photo-degradation, which means that it “only breaks down into smaller toxic bits of itself,” according to The Biodiversity Project.
As it degrades, plastic undergoes a process by which it returns to the ingredients from which it was made, substances like benzene and vinyl hydrochloride. These are toxic substances that are known to cause cancer. And their manufacturing byproducts contaminate our air and soil, as well as the oceans.
Some sources of this “invisible” pollution are not obvious. Microparticles are found in products like deodorant, sunscreens, and even toothpaste that wash down drains, flush into waste-water systems, and join other, more obvious, pollutants in our oceans. At this point, they become part of the food cycle.
Other plastic products contain phthalates, chemical compounds that are used to make plastic transparent, flexible, softer, and more durable. It has been shown that phthalates affect the human endocrine system and have a negative effect on fertility, often causing birth defects and other health problems.
As well as adding to ocean pollution with other plastic products and byproducts, phthalates also contribute directly to air pollution because their light weight is due to the use of simple alcohols, which give them that “plastic smell.” However, the odor is actually the discharge of the chemical into the atmosphere.
The problem of plastic pollution is escalating. According to the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD): “In the first decade of this century, we made more plastic than all the plastic in history up to the year 2000. And every year, billions of pounds of plastic end up in the world’s oceans.” In 2015, researchers from the University of California, Santa Barbara, analyzed more than a million pieces of trash in the Pacific. They found that 99.9 percent of it was plastic.
Ronald Geyer, an industrial ecologist at UCSB believes that it is becoming increasingly difficult not to ingest plastics. A study performed earlier this year revealed that 93 percent of bottled water contains some plastic, double the amount found in tap water. He says, “I think we’ll find all sorts of unintended consequences. I’d be surprised to find out that it is a purely aesthetic problem.”
Initially, plastic pollution could be blamed on only the most economically advanced countries where the technology existed. That’s no longer true for at least two reasons: some countries that were left behind by the new technologies are industrializing, and modern technology has been spread to economically depressed areas.
The editors of The Week point out that “China bears the greatest responsibility, accounting for about 30 percent of the global total, while the United States ranks 20th.” Because the means for producing plastic has spread to countries as diverse as Peru, Kenya, and Vietnam, the CBD concludes, “There is no place on Earth that plastic hasn’t reached.
The plastic garbage from many sources works its way into ocean currents where it is carried to a gyre, a point where all the trash comes together. Every ocean has one.
The Pacific gyre is now a huge, floating island, as big as Europe, India, and Mexico combined. And, emerging research suggests that not one square mile of surface ocean anywhere on earth is free of plastic pollution.
This month, Starbucks announced that it plans to eliminate single-use plastic straws at all of its outlets around the world by 2020. Last month, McDonald’s stated that it will start testing alternatives to plastic straws at some of its locations in the United States. A year ago, Bon Appétit began phasing out the use of them, as well.
It’s easy to criticize these businesses for eliminating something that has been a convenience to most of us and seems insignificant in relationship to the vastness of the problem. But, let’s remember that the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.
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Jim Glynn may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.