Opinion » Bill Cope

Poseidon Shrugged

Then choked on a plastic Nemo


I have something to say to those people who may believe in global warming but refuse to admit that the puny efforts of mankind could possibly be responsible for it.

But first, let's talk about that area in the Pacific Ocean where all the plastic is floating around. An estimated 100 million tons of it--or 200 trillion pounds, if you prefer. You know about this, surely you do. How could you not know about a plastic Atlantis, roughly twice the size of the continental United States, bobbing about in the middle of the Pacific, destroying birds and fish and sea turtles and anything else unlucky enough to confuse it with something edible, habitable or natural?

Oceanographers know it as the North Pacific Gyre, referring to the pattern of wind and water currents that contribute to a slow-moving maelstrom effect of enormous scale, pulling flotsam and jetsam into the center and keeping it there. Others call it the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, referring not so much to the natural vortex phenomenon as to the unnatural accumulation our modern consumption habits have made of it.

With a name like "the Great Pacific Garbage Patch," one is tempted to picture a pleasant little coastal cul-de-sac where on Saturdays, Dad loads the trash barge up with clippings from the frontyard shrubbery and maybe a derelict dishwasher or water heater, then tugs it out to a maritime landfill and dumps it under the supervision of a kindly naval sanitation engineer.

Sorry. Nothing so benign as that. This garbage patch is all plastic, the largest share of which has broken down into bead-like particles, the form it started out as before it did its time on a store shelf somewhere. Most of it isn't bobbing about over the waves, either, but is instead suspended in a stratum just below the surface. And it's thick. In some areas, the particles have been found to be seven times more concentrated than the indigenous zooplankton--which, of course, is the foundation of the food chain in any respectable ocean.

It got there because for too long, plastic consumers in the Americas conspired with plastic consumers in Japan and China and the Philippines, etc., and as a species, decided not to think long-term about all the plastic we have been consuming. (It's likely just a matter of time until Europe and the East Coast have their own plastic raft fouling the Atlantic.) None of us actually realized we belonged to this huge cabal of plastic profligacy, of course. We were just going our wasteful way, glugging liquid refreshment from plastic bottles, toting home groceries in plastic bags, swathing leftovers in plastic wraps, entirely unaware that 200 trillion pounds of plastic (34 pounds for every man, woman and child currently on Earth) was getting loose and making a run for it, down to the sea in garbage scows (and sewers and cruise ships and fishing fleets and off-shore winds).

Other garbage gets away, too. Apple cores and coffee grounds; pop-top cans once sparkling with Mountain Dew and Coors; Kleenex tissues, weighted with clots of snot from swine flu victims; pizza boxes slick with pepperoni grease; cigarette butts and banana peels; those hamburger blankets and french fry cradles that poorly raised people toss unconcerned from car windows. But plastics hold a special place in God's Creation in that God neither created them, nor does He seem to know how to get rid of the crap once we are done with it. While other materials rot or rust or wither away, plastic just rolls on and on. That hard-shelled sippee cup you are cradling in your lap as you drive to work will outlive you, your children, your bones, and very possibly the civilization that provided us with the questionable concept that nothing lasts forever.

To this mortal, though, the most remarkable thing about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch isn't its size, its composition, or the stupefying inconsideration that made it possible. The most remarkable thing about all that plastic is the remarkably short time it took to fill an ocean with the stuff.

Think about it: Before 1855, there was no such thing as plastic. (Credit Alexander Parkes, a Brit, for concocting the first clot of plastic.) And even after that, all the plastic for almost a century was the sort they shaped into egg timers, telephones and bowling balls.

It wasn't until the 1950s--with the arrival of delightful sounding goops such as polystyrene, high-density polyethylene and polyethylene terephthalate--that we started to think we could wrap our entire gross national product in plastic packaging, then haul away the discarded packaging in plastic garbage bags. Yes, by the time Mr. Robinson told young Benjamin Braddock to "think plastics" (The Graduate, 1967), the Age of Plastics was really just getting started. Plastics, in the sense we think of them now, are younger than me, and by at least 10 years. Plastic is still a baby.

Yet in 50 years or less (18,000 days, if you prefer) we have used enough of it, and inadequately disposed of enough of it, that it is--more rapidly than we dare to think--killing the largest ocean we have.

So this is what I would say to those people who may believe in global warming but refuse to admit that the puny efforts of mankind could possibly be responsible for it: How could two centuries of industrial licentiousness not be tipping whatever balance an indifferent Nature provides?