The Horrors of Plastic

Yesterday, I went to the Fremont Solstice Parade in Seattle.  For the most part, it was just an incredibly quirky tribute to the beginning of summer.  There were a lot of inexplicable costumes, puppets, and floats that were very creative and cool to look at, but just too difficult to discern the meaning of (if there even was a meaning).  However, one of the groups in the parade was much more thought-provoking than the rest.

Plastic trash dragon with moving jaw and plastic water bottle teeth. Please excuse the less-than-ideal image quality, I was taking pictures on my phone.

At first glimpse, it appeared to be a Chinese dragon, of the type that you see many people carrying in a Chinese New Year celebration.  However, once it got closer, you could see that the entire dragon, including its articulated head and long sinuous body, was entirely made out of trash.  Plastic bags, plastic bottles, and other plastic odds and ends.  This trash dragon was meant to represent all of the plastic waste that we humans generate each year.  This was made even more obvious by all the plastic-bag-dressed people accompanying the dragon, and singing a song about plastic to the tune of “Puff the Magic Dragon”.

More of the plastic dragon’s body. It was quite long.

This actually reminded me of something I wanted to write about, so I figured this would be a good time (I’ll write about something cute and happy soon, I promise!)  Plastics, and their use and misuse.  To me, plastics represent everything that is wrong with our society.  Plastics are manufactured, used, and then all to often they are simply thrown away.  Few people actually stop to wonder where plastics come from, how they are made, and what happens to them after they are thrown away.  And this is to the great detriment of the environment, and by extension, to ourselves.

When I lived in Australia I volunteered for Reef Check Australia, and aside from conducting reef surveys, I also helped out with whatever promotional events I could. One of these was a free screening of the plastics documentary Bag It. I sold reusable shopping bags and those silicone coffee cups that look like disposable ones but aren’t, and after I finished doing this I watched the movie along with a lot of other curious people. This documentary really opened my eyes. I already knew a bit about why plastic is bad, and I’ve been against buying bottled water for a long time (You pay for water? Really?) but Bag It really drove that point home. It provided a lot of facts about the nasty side of plastics manufacturing and plastic waste, in a way that I think was really accessible to a lot of people. In fact, I would encourage everyone to see it if you get the chance. But I will try to summarize some of the most important points, so that everyone can make more educated choices about their use of plastic products, and hopefully be more conscientious about it. Watch the trailer for Bag It:

Plastic is really bad, people! Sorry, there’s no nicer way to put it. There are many different types of plastics, but most of them are not biodegradable, which means they don’t break down in the environment like paper or a banana peel would. Yes, they do break down into smaller pieces, due to sun exposure and mechanical damage (think of rocks grinding together in the waves until they break down into sand). However, this just means that there are small pieces of plastic that stay in the environment and don’t go away. You’ve probably seen them. A bright glimpse of red or blue or white on the forest floor or on the beach. These little pieces of plastic build up. In some places, the plastic buildup is so severe that entire beaches are made not of sand, but of tiny little multicolored pieces of plastic. In the middle of the Pacific Ocean, there is a place known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, where converging currents have gathered an astounding amount of garbage into an area that is generally believed to be at least twice the size of Hawaii. It is horrifying. Much of the trash that ends up there is, of course, plastic, and the action of the sun and the waves break down all that plastic into smaller and smaller pieces, resulting in what is essentially plastic soup. These nasty little bits of plastic get into animals too, and cause a huge amount of damage. I’m sure everyone has seen images of all sorts of animals tangled up in plastic six-pack can holders. This is only a small glimpse of the havoc that plastic can wreak on animals as individuals, and on animal populations as a whole. The Bag It documentary contains a lot of heart-wrenching images of dead and dying seabirds that have swallowed hundreds or even thousands of small pieces of plastic, which are found floating in the ocean amongst the little fishes and crustaceans and other delicious things that seabirds rely on for survival. Once enough plastic builds up in a bird’s digestive system, it can no longer consume or digest its food. Unsurprisingly, this kills the bird. Even more tragic is when the parent birds hunt for food for their young, then come home to their nest and regurgitate a mouthful of plastic for their chick. In some places the plastic pollution is so bad that it is killing off a significant percentage of the seabird population, endangering the species.

It’s not just seabirds that are at a significant risk from plastics pollution. Many sea turtles are also getting sick and dying thanks to plastic bags floating in the ocean. All sea turtle species, even those that are normally herbivorous, love to eat jellyfish. And plastic bags floating around at the surface of the ocean look an awful lot like jellyfish. Due to the profusion of plastic bags and other waste that winds up in the oceans, this means that a lot of sea turtles die each year due to plastic ingestion. I have seen this firsthand. I used to volunteer at Reef HQ Aquariumin Townsville, and that aquarium operates a Turtle Hospital that rescues and rehabilitates sea turtles.

A very sick turtle being examined by an aquarium staff biologist. He was severely emaciated and covered with parasites when he was brought in.

A healthy green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas) being examined in the hospital.

The turtles that are brought into the hospital are kept in small holding tanks and treated by local veterinarians, then kept and cared for until they are well enough to be released in the same location where they were found. Many of the turtles that are rescued are very sick due to having ingested plastic bags (and often other garbage as well–many cigarette butts are found inside these turtles). The bag creates a blockage in the turtle’s digestive system and not only prevents it from feeding and absorbing nutrients properly, it also causes a buildup of gas in the intestines that prevents the turtle from diving. Thus the turtle floats around at the surface of the water, unable to dive for food and at great risk from boat strikes (which kill turtles, dugongs, dolphins, and many other large marine animals). These turtles, when brought to the hospital, are lethargic, parasite-ridden, weak, and starving. Unfortunately, some of them don’t make it, but most of them do, thanks to the constant care of veterinarians, aquarium staff, and volunteers. With proper care and feeding, the turtles can usually manage to pass the plastic that causes the blockage, lose the parasites, and start gaining weight again. These are the happy stories. Most sick or injured turtles out in the wild are never even found, much less rescued.

Plastic isn’t just detrimental to animals, it can be detrimental to our health as well. Plastics are made with some pretty noxious chemicals. These chemicals can easily leach out of the plastic and into the surrounding environment, as well as our own bodies. Remember BPA? The scare a few years back concerning BPA (Bisphenol A) caused certain reusable plastic water bottle manufacturers to overhaul their manufacturing methods. This compound was once ubiquitous in plastics that we constantly came into contact with (though we didn’t realize it), it was eventually revealed through numerous studies to be an endocrine disruptor, thyroid inhibitor, it can cause neurological issues and has been implicated in increased risk of various cancers. You can still walk into any REI store and find Nalgenes galore, but nowadays they have stickers on them that proudly proclaim “BPA Free!” While it’s great that years of scientific studies finally caused a big corporation to make a significant positive change in their manufacturing methods, I have to wonder…what is it going to be next? What are they going to be banning or discontinuing in five, ten, or twenty years? I have no doubt that it will be yet another ubiquitous chemical that was previously thought to be completely harmless and is used in many of the products that we are exposed to in our everyday lives. Pthalates are another class of chemicals that have been demonstrated to be harmful (they are endocrine disruptors like BPA). Pthalates are used extensively in plastics as plastic softeners, but they are also found in many other everyday items, and you would never know it because they don’t actually appear on labels. The Bag It documentary explores this topic in more depth than I can do here, and it’s interesting but also very scary. You can read some more about the human health issues surrounding plastic (as well as the other issues) on the website.

And what of my aforementioned vendetta against plastic water bottles? Bottled water is such a terrible industry I honestly can’t believe it exists (well actually I can, but I guess that’s because I’m jaded). Not only is bottled water an incredibly devious marketing scam, it exacts a horrible toll on the environment. For starters, bottled water doesn’t even come from the pristine mountain springs where it’s often depicted to be sourced from. Many brands of bottled water have been proven to be simply bottled tap water. On top of that, the manufacture and transport of massive amounts of bottled water (they don’t just make it in your home town, they truck it all over the country and transport it all over the world) uses a hideous amount of energy. And people are upset about rising gas prices?
Check out this interesting little video that explains the problems with bottled water in an engaging and succinct way:

I also want to point out that, near the end of the video, she says that you should refrain from buying bottled water unless you live in an area where the tap water is actually dangerous to your health. Well, there are even ways around that. Last year I traveled to Bali, Indonesia, where all the guidebooks tell you to not drink the water or risk severe debilitating illness and explosive diarrhea. Well, I sure didn’t want that, so I brought along a cool little device called a Steri-Pen. It’s about the size of a flashlight and it uses a UV bulb to quickly and easily sterilize the water, killing all the viruses, bacteria, protozoans, and other disease-causing organisms. I know I probably sound like an infomercial, but it really works. I spent two weeks in Bali without buying a single bottle of water. I just filled up my Nalgene from the taps, sterilized it, then guzzled it happily and didn’t get the slightest bit sick.

So, the bottom line here is that plastic is crap. It’s terrible that our society depends on it so heavily, it seems that almost everything is made out of plastic these days. So what can you do about it? The obvious answer is to do your best to reduce your use of plastic products, especially the disposable ones. One of the most important (and not so difficult!) things you can do is say NO to plastic bags at the grocery store. Just buy a few inexpensive cloth bags and keep them in your car. Also, I hope that everyone who reads this post will go right now and check out the Rise Above Plastics campaign from the Surfrider Foundation. It has useful information about how to reduce your use of plastics. These tips are easy to follow and will make a difference. Think about how good you will feel when you can say definitively that you aren’t contributing to the huge issue of plastic pollution! Think about how many animals you won’t be dooming to a slow and painful death. I do my best to follow these rules and reduce my use of plastic. I know that I have a ways to go, but I am determined to do better and better, and see how little plastic I can possibly use. I hope that, if you have read this far, you will do the same!

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About Caitlin

I’m a 27-year-old female Homo sapiens. Lifelong nature lover, world traveler, zoologist, foodie, scuba enthusiast and certified Divemaster, lover of books, and herder of cats.
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2 Responses to The Horrors of Plastic

  1. Lindsey says:

    This is why I am very happy that, as of July 1st, Seattle will put into effect its ban of plastic bags and begin charging for paper. Do you know anything about whether paper bags are harmful to the environment, or how they compare to plastic bags?
    Also, later this year there will be an exhibit on plastics at the Burke Museum. Like the documentaries you mention, it ought to be quite fascinating, although I believe it will also explore uses of plastic that we still can’t do without yet, such as in health care and food service.

  2. Caitlin says:

    You know, I don’t know a lot of specifics about how paper bags are manufactured, whether it causes a lot of pollution, and how much of the paper pulp that goes into it is recycled. I shall have to look into that. However, paper bags themselves are definitely biodegradable, where plastic bags are obviously not, so once they get out into the environment they cause a heck of a lot less damage. So while maybe not a perfect solution, I think it’s definitely the lesser of two evils.

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