Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The Floating Plastic Inevitable

From Dan: I just finished reading The World Without Us by Alan Weisman. Although it wasn't the best choice from a mental health perspective during the coldest days of this Minnesota winter, it was a very thought-provoking mind experiment. Perhaps I should have read it on the beach in Mexico.

A chapter in the middle about the longevity of all things plastic did remind me of Mexico, though. We saw all manner of floating plastic trash washes up on the beach daily, to be cleaned up by hotel and resort employees, or, in the case of a nature preserve we visited, by nobody. It turns out that all the world's oceans are swimming with a growing miasma of bottle tops, plastic bags, toys, nets, bottles, and flip flops in various stages of disintegration as their polymers are broken down by UV radiation. It turns out that the swirling currents in the centers of the oceans concentrate this garbage into a colossal vortex of floating plastic.

Another article, Moby Duck, from the January 2007 issue of Harper's Magazine, recorded how a container of PVC toy ducks spilled in the Pacific seeded beaches on 5 continents with globetrotting tub toys. Here in Minnesota, at the headwaters of the Mississippi, we don't really think about how our yogurt cup or Sponge Bob figure might find its way to a Yucatan beach or how our grass fertilizer may be contributing to the dead zone, an area the size of New Jersey where no fish lives off the coast of Louisiana in the Gulf of Mexico.

The World Without Us reaffirmed for me that the world is a lot more interconnected than we generally perceive. It also made the point that much of what we value most is the most impermanent and much of what we value least, like plastic junk, is the most enduring.
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