Worldwide, according to the United Nations Environment Programme, plastic is killing a million seabirds a year and 100,000 marine mammals either from mistakenly eating this junk or from being ensnared in it and drowning. It kills by choking throats and gullets and clogging up digestive tracts, leading to fatal constipation. Bottle caps, pocket combs, cigarette lighters, tampon applicators, cottonbud shafts, toothbrushes, toys, syringes and plastic shopping bags are routinely found in the stomachs of dead seabirds and turtles. (One animal dissected by Dutch researchers contained 1,603 pieces of plastic.) And the birds aren’t alone. All sea creatures are threatened by floating plastic, from whales down to zooplankton. There’s a basic moral horror in seeing the pictures: a sea turtle with a plastic band strangling its shell into an hourglass shape; a humpback towing plastic nets that cut into its flesh and make it impossible for the animal to hunt.
This statistic is grim—for marine animals, of course, but even more so for humans. The more invisible and ubiquitous the pollution, the more likely it will end up inside us. And there’s growing—and disturbing—proof that we’re ingesting plastic toxins constantly and that even slight doses of these substances can severely disrupt gene activity. “Every one of us has this huge body burden,” Moore says. “You could take your serum to a lab now, and they’d find at least 100 industrial chemicals that weren’t around in 1950.” The fact that these toxins don’t cause violent and immediate reactions does not mean they’re benign: Scientists are just beginning to research the long-term ways in which the chemicals used to make plastic interact with our own biochemistry.
We’re eating these plasticizing additives, drinking them, breathing them, and absorbing them through our skin every single day.
Most alarming, these chemicals may disrupt the endocrine system—the delicately balanced set of hormones and glands that affect virtually every organ and cell—by mimicking the female hormone estrogen. In marine environments, excess estrogen has led to scientists discovering male fish and seagulls that have sprouted female sex organs.
The sad truth is no one knows how long it will take for plastic to biodegrade or return to its carbon and hydrogen elements. We only invented the stuff 144 years ago and science’s best guess is that its natural disappearance will take several more centuries. Meanwhile, every year, we churn out about 60 billion tons of it, much of which becomes disposable products meant only for a single use. Set aside the question of why we’re creating ketchup bottles and six-pack rings that last for half a millennium and consider the implications of it:- Plastic never really goes away.
The North Pacific gyre is only one of five such high-pressure zones in the oceans. There are similar areas in the South Pacific, the North and South Atlantic and the Indian Ocean. Each of these gyres has its own version of the Garbage Patch, as plastic gathers in the currents. Together, these areas cover 40 percent of the sea. “That corresponds to a quarter of the earth’s surface,” Moore says. “So 25 percent of our planet is a toilet that never flushes.”
The benefits of plastic, most of which relate to convenience, consumer choice and profit, have been phenomenal. But except for the small percentage that has been incinerated, every single molecule of plastic that has ever been manufactured is still somewhere in the environment and some 100 million tons of it are floating in the oceans.
What we cannot do is clean up the plastic in the oceans. 'It's the biggest misunderstanding people have on this issue,' Moore says. 'They think the ocean is like a lake and we can go out with nets and just clean it up. People find it difficult to grasp the true size of the oceans and the fact that most of this plastic is in tiny pieces and it's everywhere. All we can do is stop putting more of it in and that means redesigning our relationship with plastic.'
We know for an absolute fact that if we continue on our current rate of consumption, we're going to run out of resources. But the annual budget for the United National Environmental Programme last year was $190 million. And the budget for the latest James Bond movie was $205 million.'
"The oceans are our life support systems," says Ocean Conservancy president Vikki Spruill. "They supply much of the oxygen we breathe, the food we eat and regulate the climate we need to survive. But marine pollution continues to pose a threat to our health."
Depressingly the future does not look good but each of us must make a stand and change our attitudes to plastic and our disposable society.
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