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Editorial: The Plastic in the Seas Around Us

Wednesday, December 31, 2014
Inflation has affected numbers and their ability to impress. A dollar tip draws a yawn. A $100 trip to the supermarket doesn’t get a family through the week. A thousand dollars won’t buy the latest and greatest TV. Being a millionaire wouldn’t get you into Who’s Who Among American Tycoons.

But 5 trillion still catches your eye. According to a Washington Post story that ran in this newspaper recently, 5 trillion pieces of plastic are floating in the world’s oceans — 5 trillion pieces of Barbies, Kens, grocery bags, yogurt lids, fishing nets, combs, straws, Frisbees, Wiffle balls and wastebaskets. The researchers who made the estimate say the figure may be “highly conservative.’’

The estimate comes from the Five Gyres Institute in Los Angeles, named after the five major ocean currents, and was published in the journal PLOS One. Lead author Marcus Eriksen commented ominously, “What we are witnessing in the global ocean is a growing threat of toxin-laden microplastics cycling through the entire marine ecosystem.” Microplastics are created when plastic bobs in the ocean and over time breaks down into smaller and smaller bits. As big items float along on the surface, tiny pieces below become, in the words of the National Resources Defense Council, a sort of “garbage soup.’’

Reading about ocean plastic makes one marvel at what man has wrought. According to National Geographic, trash from North America makes a mighty six-year voyage to reach “The Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” where it hooks up with trash from Asia. Ocean currents form these areas of spinning debris that researchers are only now starting to measure.

Plastics great and small can be harmful to marine life. National Geographic says loggerhead sea turtles mistake plastic bags for jellyfish, a favorite food. Albatrosses mistake plastic resin for fish eggs and feed it to chicks, which can starve. Seals and other marine mammals become entangled in discarded plastic fishing nets and drown.

Many marine animals may be adding plastic to their diet. “That’s not only bad for fish, it could ultimately be bad for us,’’ the Washington Post account observed, if plastic floats up the food chain to humans.

Eriksen says society needs to have a “100 percent recovery plan’’ for plastics, or individuals must select “100 percent harmlessness” in their choice of material. The discussion can begin, we think, with awareness of the plastic that surrounds us — just look at holiday presents and wrappers, for starters. An individual would have to make serious lifestyle changes to completely avoid plastic, but much consumption happens without much thought. Exactly when did people conclude that they could not exercise, even moderately, without a plastic water bottle in hand? And why can’t shoppers carry two or three items from the grocery store without a plastic bag?

Wider solutions may come in the form of more effective recycling at the community and regional level, and could grow from there. In the meantime, consider that the trash you throw away may be an incoming tide.






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