September 2, 2009

Guess what? We’re eating the plastic we don’t recycle

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You have to read this. Especially you folks who voted against plastic bag fees in cities like Seattle, or watched the Big Chemical lobby  move the debate in your city’s or state’s debate over plastic bottles or bags. Or don’t think it matters if you buy your takeout in those Styrofoam clam shells. Jeez. I thought the giant the roiling island of plastic debris out in the Pacific was the size of Texas. Turns out it’s TWICE the size of Texas. And that’s not all, reports Paul Rogers in the San Jose Mercury News this morning.

California researchers, just back from a research trip, have found that the plastic from bottles, bags and many, many other plastic objects, broken down into such tiny particles that they are not even visible from satellites, are being eaten by tiny jellyfish. And salmon and tuna eat the jellyfish. Hmm. Guess who eats the salmon and tuna? And guess what the plastic contains? Toxic chemicals, including now-banned DDT and PCBs. The research was the most extensive look yet at the garbage patch, located about 1,000 miles north of Hawaii.

“Every day, every night, we’d pull up samples and pour the water through a sieve. It would be completely clogged with tiny pieces of plastic,” said Margy Gassel, a research scientist with the California Environmental Protection Agency. “It was so disturbing.”

Researchers said one solution might be to dramatically increase the use of plant-based, biodegradable plastic and to beef up plastics-recycling programs. Designing storm drains to catch plastic debris also is a possibility.

“We’re not talking about a plastic-bag tax,” said Doug Woodring, a former Merrill Lynch financier and one of the founders of Project Kaisei. “We need to move the needle beyond that.”

Those involved in the research came away impressed with a sense of urgency, even though research papers won’t be out for months.

“The floating pieces of plastic – large and small – are like a spreading cancer on the ocean,” said Mary Crowley, a Sausalito resident who owns a yacht chartering company, Ocean Voyages, and who co-founded Project Kaisei,. “It’s impossible for me to think of what the ocean might be like in another 30 years if we don’t change.”

— Rita Hibbard

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