Plastic bags and packaging were introduced in the 1950s. Transparent cellophane wrappers enabled shoppers to rummage through pre-cut portions of food, less appealing sides down and hidden by grocers, who adulterated others with waxes and dyes. When it came to durables, plastic packaging posed obstacles to light-fingered customers and gave illusions of grandeur to the smallest of purchases. From perspectives of profit, versatility, and strength, plastics have been a lightweight, malleable, nonperishable boon. Contributing mightily to our glut for oil, they’ve been a cheap structural material in everything from toys to automobiles, aircraft components to medical equipment. In “The Graduate” the mere mention of “plastics” delighted us as much as “Mrs. Robinson, you’re trying to seduce me…aren’t you?”
Plastics have lured us into yet another environmental crisis, less from ubiquity than refusals to dispose and recycle them properly. Where human ignorance leads, bans and catastrophes follow. Roughly eight million metric tons of plastic are thrown into the ocean yearly, ankle-deep equivalent of plastic bags, soda bottles, straws and takeout containers covering an area 34 times the size of Manhattan. According to environmental engineer Jenna Jambeck, mismanaged garbage could multiply two- to tenfold by 2025 unless we act immediately and on a global scale. Nikita Khrushchev grossly underestimated our propensity for waste. We’re not only burying ourselves in garbage, we’re destroying the seas with our litter. Five massive concentrations of plastic debris (a.k.a. gyres) are floating in the oceans. The largest, between California and Hawaii, is the size of Texas. Plastics are non-biodegradable, becoming smaller and smaller when exposed to sunlight, so the seas contain “microplastic” pieces smaller than 5mm, 236,000 tons of which are added from mainlands each year. Microplastics are already suspended in water as deep as 11 kilometers. By 2050, there will be more plastic in the oceans by weight than fish.
According to ecotoxicologists, plastics severely threaten more than 700 marine wildlife species. One of three leatherback turtles, who often mistake plastic bags for jellyfish, has been autopsied with plastic in their guts. In February, a beached whale in Norway had 30 plastic bags in its stomach. Ninety percent of seabirds, including albatross and petrels, are ingesting plastics to some degree, as are human beings who regularly eat seafood. Because fish species mistake plastic fragments coated in bacteria and algae for food sources, recent studies have found microplastics in nearly a third of the fish sampled at U.S. and Indonesian docks. Mollusks, crustacean, and filter-feeding organisms like coral are particularly susceptible. Toxicological risks to humans eating microscopic plastic fibers could range from cancer to liver, kidney and reproductive disorders.More Headlines
Last March, a dozen or so nations committed to reducing plastic marine litter, part of the UN Clean Seas Initiative. Predictably, the U.S. wasn’t among them. That’s because we’re a Country of Can’t. Sure, we can invade others at the drop off a hat, use drones as assassins, build prisons and cordon off the First Amendment into ‘free speech zones,’ but when it comes to saving the biosphere from climate change and plastics, we can’t; we’re feeble; we’re stupid. Desperate for propaganda to match Sputnik, Yuri Gagarin and Gherman Titov, Werner von Braun suggested JFK declare a mission to the moon. Fifty years ago, was Apollo 11 America’s high water mark and last hurrah of common cause?
Scott Deshefy is two-time Green Party congressional candidate.