Greenpoint: Horrors of plastic will linger even in a world without us

There might be no more shocking physical representation of the way plastic waste is consuming our oceans than the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. This iceberg-like floating mass of trash is twice the size of Texas, making it the largest garbage site in the world. The North Pacific gyre, a system of ocean currents, deposits all the debris it picks up there, which is reported to be about 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic weighing 87,000 tons. That’s more than 43,000 cars or 500 jumbo jets. (Tribune News Service)

There might be no more shocking physical representation of the way plastic waste is consuming our oceans than the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. This iceberg-like floating mass of trash is twice the size of Texas, making it the largest garbage site in the world. The North Pacific gyre, a system of ocean currents, deposits all the debris it picks up there, which is reported to be about 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic weighing 87,000 tons. That’s more than 43,000 cars or 500 jumbo jets. (Tribune News Service)

When we bought our house 30-something years ago, it had been vacant for a couple of years. We were so happy to almost have a place of our own that we’d sit on the front steps and enjoy the overgrown yard and the clear skies, even before we officially owned the place.

With infrequent mowing and no one using the driveway or yard, the place had gone a little feral. There were dozens of bunnies in the yard, enormous toads and lots of birds.

If you leave a space alone for a while, nature returns.

I’ve been taking the bus to work a lot lately, even though it takes almost twice as long as driving. I have to drive to the park-and-ride, take one bus to downtown Albany and another across town.

On the other hand, I’m sharing one ride with 30 other people, driving far less and, as a bonus, I have some rare time to myself — to read or knit or daydream or nap. No interruptions.

I think it’s worth it.

Last week I was knitting socks on the bus. This week I’ve gotten lost in a book about what the world might look like if humans suddenly disappeared.

“The World Without Us” is sort of a journalistic thought experiment. The author, Alan Weisman, interviewed urban planners, structural engineers, paleontologists, agricultural historians, seafaring experts on garbage and dozens more, all over the world, to get their views on how long it would take for everything we’ve built and changed on this planet to be erased — if that could ever happen.

First off, like our wild front yard 30 years ago, flora and fauna would return, flowers in sidewalk cracks and deer and wild turkeys repopulating towns and cities. Most of our human-made structures — skyscrapers, roads and bridges, houses and barns — would be slowly crumbled by water, sun and the freeze-thaw cycle. Cleared pastures and cultivated fields, if they haven’t been too sterilized by poisons, would return to trees and animals.

More striking are the chapters on what will never disappear — heavy metals and, mostly, plastic.

None of this is new information, and the book is 15 years old. And while I know about the plastic problems and have written about them before, the chapter was still horrifying. Ocean garbage patches with 18 million tons of swirling debris. Marine animals with stomachs and intestines blocked with small and tiny pieces of plastic. “Nurdles” everywhere — the tiny pellets of plastic, virgin or recycled, that are used to manufacture everything from plastic bags to park benches.

Fifty years after plastic first came into regular use, nearly all of it is still with us, intact or ground down into smaller and smaller particles. The big pieces clog pipes and shorelines, get carried across oceans, floating on top or sinking below. And microplastics are found in water worldwide, and in air and in the bodies of animals and humans. A Dutch study published in March in the journal “Environment International” found microplastics in the blood of 80% of the people sampled.

“But what’s the point of the book,” my eldest asked, tired of being told that if every person does their little part a global problem will disappear, and tired of being told to just think about the problem. “We already know this.”

We do. And it takes bigger solutions, regulations and policy changes. Bag bans and Styrofoam bans help. We need to focus on more research into packaging alternatives and into ways to break down, use up and eliminate plastic waste.

And we do need to keep being personally vigilant, even when we already know it.

Greenpoint appears every other Sunday. Look for it next on July 31. Reach Margaret Hartley at [email protected] or on Twitter @Hartley_Maggie. Opinions expressed in Greenpoint are not necessarily those of the newspaper’s.

Categories: Life and Arts

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