It is an impressive reminder that when the U.S. sent up that satellite in the seventies, the one with the famous drawing of a heroic human figure by Leonardo Da Vinci and various emblematic signs indicative of our human kind, we forgot the sign for endless shit. What is that sign, anyway? It should be in the zodiac. Some star cluster spelling out turd. Humans are characterized, more than anything else, by their tremendous ability to create garbage. No other creature has ever created garbage on the human scale. We each use more energy than a blue whale, and we each turn it into more waste than a blue whale weighs.
Take plastic. Since its invention, about fifty years ago, it is all still here.
“EXCEPT FOR A SMALL AMOUNT that’s been incinerated,” says Tony Andrady the oracle, “every bit of plastic manufactured in the world for the last fifty years or so still remains. It’s somewhere in the environment.”
That half century’s total production now surpasses 1 billion tons. It includes hundreds of different plastics, with untold permutations involving added plasticizers, opacifiers, colors, fillers, strengtheners, and light stabilizers. The longevity of each can vary enormously. Thus far, none has disappeared. Researchers have attempted to find out how long it will take polyethylene to biodegrade by incubating a sample in a live bacteria culture. A year later, less than 1 percent was gone.
“And that’s under the best controlled laboratory conditions. That’s not what you will find in real life,” says Tony Andrady. “Plastics haven’t been around long enough for microbes to develop the enzymes to handle it, so they can only biodegrade the very-low-molecular-weight part of the plastic”—meaning, the smallest, already broken polymer chains. Although truly biodegradable plastics derived from natural plant sugars have appeared, as well as biodegradable polyester made from bacteria, the chances of them replacing the petroleum-based originals aren’t great.”
I’m quoting from the Orion magazine excerpt. Reader, do read this article. Orion is one of the smartest magazines going at the present time, and their environmental reporting and essays are so much better than the gasbaggery of most magazines that it is depressing.
Weisman’s chapter is about where that plastic is mostly going. It is mostly going into that part of this beautiful planet that God looked down upon, and said – to his angels – this shall be man’s toilet bowl, where he can dump all the shit and crap he needs, after filling his guts with twinkies and potato chips. You guessed it: the oceans! yes indeed, this little hominid critter is doing a bang up job on the oceans. There is a part of the Pacific ocean in the horse latitudes between California and Hawaii known as the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre. It is mostly avoided by ships, since the water in it is warm and slowly rotates in a vast vortex. It is the size of Texas. The plastic bag I took my groceries home in two years ago this day is probably there; as is the potato chip bag I crumpled up, the Styrofoam that my computer was packed in, and a bike tire or two. The plastic in the upper waters has been measured. It now outnumbers the plankton. Plastic is made in little pellets called nurdles, and those little pellets find their way, by wind and water, to the ocean two. It is estimated that two hundred fifty million pounds is manufactured each year. And the pellets then go through guts. Just as sea birds and turtles consume empty balloons and rubber bands, these miniscule nurdles are eaten by tinier creatures. A biologist named Richard Thompson has been studying this:
“Thompson’s team realized that slow mechanical action—waves and tides that grind against shorelines, turning rocks into beaches—were now doing the same to plastics. The largest, most conspicuous items bobbing in the surf were slowly getting smaller. At the same time, there was no sign that any of the plastic was biodegrading, even when reduced to tiny fragments.
“We imagined it was being ground down smaller and smaller, into a kind of powder. And we realized that smaller and smaller could lead to bigger and bigger problems.”
He knew the terrible tales of sea otters choking on poly-ethylene rings from beer six-packs; of swans and gulls strangled by nylon nets and fishing lines; of a green sea turtle in Hawai’i dead with a pocket comb, a foot of nylon rope, and a toy truck wheel lodged in its gut. His personal worst was a study on fulmar carcasses washed ashore on North Sea coastlines. Ninety-five percent had plastic in their stomachs—an average of forty-four pieces per bird. A proportional amount in a human being would weigh nearly five pounds.
There was no way of knowing if the plastic had killed them, although it was a safe bet that, in many, chunks of indigestible plastic had blocked their intestines. Thompson reasoned that if larger plastic pieces were breaking down into smaller particles, smaller organisms would likely be consuming them. He devised an aquarium experiment, using bottom-feeding lugworms that live on organic sediments, barnacles that filter organic matter suspended in water, and sand fleas that eat beach detritus. In the experiment, plastic particles and fibers were provided in proportionately bite-sized quantities. Each creature promptly ingested them.
When the particles lodged in their intestines, the resulting constipation was terminal. But if the pieces were small enough, they passed through the invertebrates’ digestive tracts and emerged, seemingly harmlessly, out the other end. Did that mean that plastics were so stable that they weren’t toxic? At what point would they start to naturally break down—and when they did, would they release some fearful chemicals that would endanger organisms some time far in the future?
Richard Thompson didn’t know. Nobody did, because plastics haven’t been around long enough for us to know how long they’ll last or what will happen to them. His team had identified nine different kinds in the sea so far, varieties of acrylic, nylon, polyester, polyethylene, polypropylene, and polyvinyl chloride. All he knew was that soon everything alive would be eating them.”
Now, some would call this a shame and maybe even get all environmentally sappy. But luckily, in the country that counts, the U.S. of A., we have a hard core of people who have it on the authority of Jehovah himself that we can fuck with the planet any old way we want to. It is called the gang bang theory of human domination – oh, I’m sorry, that’s wrong. It is called Christianity. Not all Christianity, let’s not be unfair. The Catholic church, for instance, is so concerned about the plastic that goes into making condoms that they are doing the Lord’s work in trying to get condoms out of, like, Africa. I’m thinking more of the punkass peckerwood right. And they have an organization! Is that cool or what? it is called the interfaith punkass peckerwood movement. Just joking! It is called the Interfaith council for Environmental Stewardship. By Environmental Stewardship the IES means the same thing RJ Reynolds means by Public health – don’t believe the hype! cigarettes are good for you, Al Gore made up that thing about global warming, and God doesn’t want you to do anything romantic – pagan even – and against free enterprise (his other commandment) by making the ocean into something other than what God wanted it to be: a vast toilet.
And to think: some say this isn’t the greatest country in the world.