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Posted on Apr 4, 2011 in
A Problem With No Solution

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.
Benjamin: Just how do you mean that, sir?
-The Graduate, 1967

Little did any of us know back then how devastating that word would be. Today, plastic covers the earth - especially some of the most pristine, remote places. IIn fact, every single molecule of plastic that has ever been manufactured is still in existence. It never goes away!

Recent research also shows that in addition to killing fauna that ingests it, it can also prove fatal to life that comes into contact with it via the leaching of toxic chemicals from the plastic itself as well as acting like a chemical sponge and soaking up additional toxins. Wildlife scientists estimate that a least a million seabirds, marine mammals and sea turtles die each year due to ingesting plastic they mistake for food.

The North Pacific sub-tropical gyre - a confluence of currents that causes a vast area from which nothing floating can escape - has a massive mat of floating plastic trash estimated to be larger than the state of Texas. Most of this plastic stems from river and stream run-off, much of it from Asia, and the bulk of it is constantly breaking down into ever-smaller pieces that eventually mirror the size of plankton. Researchers opine that these plastic particles outnumber real plankton by a factor of seven! Some of the global studies have determined that between 60 and 95 percent of all marine debris is plastic. Much of it is what the E.P.A. refers to as "floatables" - waste that people flush into the treatment process like cotton swabs, condoms, tampon applicators and dental floss.

Speaking of the waste treatment process, boats and ships have increasingly stringent restrictions placed on them thanks in part to the Ocean Dumping Reform Act, the U.S. still pumps more than 850 billion gallons of untreated sewage and stormwater runoff into our waterways and oceans every year. Sadly, the plastic problem dwarfs those numbers.

Besides waste treatment systems globally being woefully inadequate for the job they're tasked with, a sad mental attitude considers our seas as capable of infinite dispersal and so we approach throwing all manner of detritus into them as "out of sight, out of mind."

All the cleaning of beaches and waterways doesn't make the slightest measurable difference in the amount of plastic pollution in our oceans. It serves more as a public relations and awareness tool. What we and the rest of the world seem to forget is that with seven-tenths of the planet covered by ocean, it really doesn't matter whether you live along a coastline or atop a mountain in Tibet. If our seas aren't healthy, neither can we be. Life is inextricably tied to the health of our oceans. So until we figure out a way to stop producing plastic altogether, we are doomed to watch the garbage patch continue to grow and our sea life continue to expire from it.