Plastics Are Forever

One word: plastic.

Benjamin Braddock as The Graduate in the 1967 film may not have been at all interested in it.

Meanwhile, America has swooned to the seduction of plastic after finding a generation ago that “cheap oil” could be made into so many versatile, colorful and inexpensive tools, toys and trinkets.

Every year, about 300 billion pounds of plastic are produced around the world. And the best thing about plastic we discovered since the sixties is that it is practically indestructible.

And maybe the worst thing about plastic, Benjamin: it is practically indestructible.

Take plastic shopping bags, for instance. They are so prevalent across the landscape that I propose that they be named the new national flower. Lifted to bloom on tree limbs by the prevailing traffic-winds of speeding eighteen-wheelers, they are the most lofty blossom of humanity’s love affair with plastic.

It’s hard to believe it has only been some 25 years since we were first faced with that awful but lightly dismissed environmental conundrum: paper or plastic? And overwhelmingly in recent years, the answer has been-you guessed it-plastic. Fully 80 percent of shoppers choose it. I read recently that “somewhere between 500 billion and a trillion plastic bags are consumed worldwide each year”.

But wait. Let me set the record straight: that many bags are made and are utilized. But dear hearts, they are NOT consumed. They are NEVER really consumed. They are however, unfortunately, sometimes eaten-but more about that distinction in a minute.

So. Where do all those trillion plastic bags go when they disappear from our lives-the ones that don’t end up in the high branches of roadside trees? First, we’ll watch a bag settle into Goose Creek right out my window here, blown from the back of someone’s passing truck.

From there, it will wash into the South Fork and on downstream, into the main flow of the Roanoke River. It may perhaps in high water become temporarily hung up in the branches of a piedmont streamside alder. But eventually, it will find its way to the ocean. And there it will not be alone.

Let’s follow our wayward bag to its not-quite-final end (a Styrofoam coffee cup would follow the same route) all the way into one of six ocean “gyres”-great swirls of listless ocean sometimes called the “horse latitudes” where much of the world’s floatable trash ends up in unimaginable abundance. The North Pacific Subtropical Gyre between Hawaii and California can swell at times to twice the size of Texas and has come, just within our lifetimes, to contain many times more plastic than that area of ocean contains in living matter (biomass.)

Bad enough that our trash plastic unaltered and whole can strangle an albatross or seal (six-pack holders are notorious for this kind of death) or choke a green sea turtle that fatally mistakes our ocean-drifting plastic bag for a tasty jelly fish.

But perhaps the most ominous thing about the durability of plastic is that it can, over long stretches of time, wear down by sheer mechanical action into smaller and smaller particles without reverting back to its constituent carbons and hydrogens.

Many millions of pounds of these tiny non-digestible particles are destined over decades, centuries perhaps, to float in the ocean currents. In time, tiny bite-sized bits of plastic will be munched but not digested by zooplankton, the bottom tier of the marine food chain. These tiny animals by countless metric tons will be eaten by bigger and bigger fish, on up the food chain and into the grocery stores. And the plastic-and its constituents (a rogue’s gallery of dangerous additives) lives on, and on, and on.

Consider this: “Except for the small amount that’s been incinerated-and it’s a very small amount-every bit of plastic ever made still exists.” Each of us tosses about 185 pounds of plastic per year. And you have to wonder: do we need filtered-water bottles that will last for 500 years?

Where does this leave you and me? Perhaps we are on the verge of a slow substitution of non-degradable with break-downable “plastic-like” shopping bags and six-pack holders and drink containers and Barbies and Kens that don’t require fossil fuels. As nearby as Virginia Tech, new, less persistent polymers for this purpose are being created using chicken feathers!

So the next time the nice young man at Slaughters presents me with that impossible paper-or-plastic dilemma and I don’t know how to answer, I’ll be toting a canvas shopping bag (it’s a start, and something we can do in the near term) and I’ll smile as I imagine a green sea turtle off the coast of Myrtle Beach munching contentedly on a real, digestible, peanut-butter-and-jellyfish.

Polymers are Forever
Plastic Ocean
Plastic A’int my Bag

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. I was a grocery store cashier in high school. I remember getting our first shipment of plastic bags. Customers hated them.

  2. I hated them then and I still do. Paper is preferable, but if you ask for paper bags, you are looked at as though you were a leper. I still ask for them when I remember. I save plastic bags and use them for packing in my business, and then recycle the rest back to the store. I am not sure what they do with them afterward, but it salves my conscience.

  3. Just a question, have you ever considered how much fossil fuels is used in the production of a paper bag, between the felling and transport of these items and the dyes and bleaches used in their production, not to mention that they are produced primarily in countries without the facilities to properly dispose of this hazardous chemical waste water.

    plastic bags by comparison use less in both their composition and production.

    further, no scientific evidence exists to prove that plastic shopping bags have any detrimental effect on the environment other than as a visual pollutant.

    a misquoted article is the only evidence of any turtle ever ingesting a plastic bag and yet this has become one of the most emotive images used to sell the anti-bag campaign.

    re-useable bags are in general made from plastic themselves and are much thicker than single use bags, as such they persist in the environment for many more years and potentially cause more harm as the woven polypropylene that the consist of degrades to more harmful base chemicals than they high density polyethylene bags.

    Single use bags are light, waterproof, occupy very little space in landfills and are very handy. All in all if disposed of in a correct fashion the bags have very little environmental impact and I for one am tired of the misinformed masses denegrating a product which makes everyones life easier.

  4. Dear anonymous, thanks for your comment, but please do become a person to whom we can direct the conversation.

    I get the feeling your bottom line here is convenience — not chemistry or ecological consequences–and the turtle anecdote by the way is not isolated. Guess you haven’t had a chance to read any of the linked articles.

    If we can make the commitment to change, we will demand alternative substances for similar functional materials that could be found for shopping bags (etc). Wood for paper is not my first choice. The chicken feathers kind of option solves two problems. That’s getting closer.

    I bet you have children. When you compare your paper bag dyes and bleaches to the one billion pounds of phthalates and six billion pounds of bisphenol produced for the production of plastics each year don’t sound like the worst choice, though not a good one.

    Consider the consequences of the chemical cycle as plastic microfragments continue to accumulate in the food chain. Your children and theirs will see our plastic trash again.

    I’m not sure about what you mean by “a” misquoted article. I find volumes of chemical and environmental articles that make me think we need to rethink plastic (bags and everything else) for the long term, even though we’ve come to treat this miracle material(and its ultimate fate) quite casually.

  5. I live on the coast and altho I have never seen a turtle that was killed by a plastic bag I have seen dead fish and crabs in them and I have seen birds with plastic around their necks. no one can tell me that plastics do not cause a lot of animal suffering.

  6. Thanks for raising the plastics issue, Fred. I am proud of San Francisco’s city council for banning the use of bottled water by the city. I sure hope more folks follow suit. We slowly but surely behave more sanely, and the fear global warming has raised seems to be kicking it up a notch, thank goodness.

  7. Ban Plastics! Save our Earth – Plastics NEVER biodegrade completely, they simply get very tiny and marine life eats them mistakenly, thinking they are food – plastic outnumbers plankton in many areas of the oceans