Never, Ever Goes Away...
In our travels, we've visited hundreds of beaches and
explored thousands of miles of coastline, from Alaska to Costa Rica.
We've walked the sterile beaches of high-end resorts in Mexico, devoid
of anything living above or below the sand except the throngs of human
tourists who visit each and every day. We've explored rocky shores
teaming with life in its many varied and wonderful forms on secluded
islands in British Columbia and Southeast Alaska that see perhaps a dozen people a
year if that. But in all our travels and on every beach and every
shore we have ever
visited, there is a common constant: garbage.
Every beach, every shore, from the most visited to the
least that we have ever explored has garbage littered along and above
the high tide line. It floats there from near and far, carried by
winds and waves and tides. Some shores, usually near human
habitats, are literally covered in it, the debris so thick that you
can't see the ground. But even the most secluded beach on the
remotest island has garbage to a greater or lesser extent, strewn along
its entire length. We carry garbage bags with us sometimes when we
go ashore and fill them in minutes, taking them back with us to
civilization for "proper" disposal in a landfill somewhere, but the
clean up task is monumental and getting worse with every passing day.
Why? Because almost exclusively, that garbage is made of plastic and
plastic never goes away.
Plastic and it's close relatives such as Styrofoam, polypropylene
and polystyrene, is what we see on every beach on every shore of every
place we visit. Unlike metal or cloth or leather or paper or glass or most of the other
substances we humans discard, intentionally or unintentionally, plastic
is the garbage that never disappears, never degrades, never goes away.
Most everything else we throw away rusts or bio-degrades or
otherwise eventually returns to the inert or organic constitute components from which is
was made. Not plastic. It may break into smaller pieces,
eventually after many years of sand and surf becoming a kind of plastic
dust with its own set of problems, but it never, ever really goes away. I
am quite sure that thousands of years from now, future geologists will
have no problem recognizing this era in history by the layer of
plastic dust in the geological record.
And far from being simply unsightly, plastic kills.
Perhaps you have seen seen the posters at an aquarium or zoo which
depict a wild Blue Heron with a plastic 6-pack ring caught in its beak
or a sea lion adorned with discarded fishing line cutting into its neck.
They are moving scenes, even when glimpsed in passing on a poster, but we've
seen that and more than that with our own
eyes. In particular and all too often, we've discovered the dead bodies of
birds and fish and turtles that were killed by plastic. We find
them on the
beaches where their bodies wash up. Sadly, it's a common
occurrence to find the rotting corpse of skeleton of a Brown Pelican or a
Giant Puffer Fish or a Bat Ray washed up on shore, surrounding the brightly colored
plastic bottle cap or plastic bag that killed it.
So what do we do? Well, after seeing the global
and international extent of the problem first hand, we have become convinced that
the problem will not be solved by simple, traditional, US-centric, consumer-side
answers. Many people for example, might call for more stringent
laws against littering or more prevalent recycling, but the problem is
an international one and many of the worse offenders are countries whose
governments can't even build roads much less afford wide-spread
recycling or enforce environmental laws.
What's more, even if every piece of plastic in every country on the
properly disposed of, it still lasts forever and some of it would still
find it's way into the oceans and onto the beaches. How?
Here's an example: There are many tens of thousands of small commercial fishermen in
Central America, one or two man operations using small boats called a pangas and a small outboard motor (the
initial cost of both are often subsidized
by the large fishing co-op to which they can become essentially
indentured and to which they sell their fish exclusively). They are everywhere
(we've encountered these sturdy little open boats over 100 miles offshore!)
and we've had many close calls dodging their unlit and often unmarked nets and long-lines, day and
night. These fishermen barely make a living catching what they can
from the ocean's dwindling resources and they can barely afford the raw
supplies to make their nets and hook their long-lines. So what do
these fishermen use for net or line floats? You got it: 2-liter
plastic beverage bottles. We've seen hundreds of them at a time,
strung every 20 or 30 feet, floating 5-mile long lines, in every sea and
gulf we've been in, from Mexico to Costa Rica. Often the bottles
we find on shore have broken fishing line tied to them.
So, we have become convinced that the only real solution
that will truly make a difference is one where non-biodegradable plastic
simply isn't produced and manufactured in the first place, at least not
for everyday consumer items where packaging that lasts forever simply
By far, the most common items we see on the beaches
we've visited are plastic beverage bottles. Other food containers
such as plastic milk cartons and butter or cottage cheese style containers are
nearly as common as are non-food items such as buckets, milk-crates, bleach bottles, plastic deodorant
dispensers, shampoo bottles and plastic 1-quart oil containers.
Plastic shoes (particularly the soles of cheap, gaudy plastic sandals and
open-toed shoes popular in warmer climates) also seem to be particularly
abundant. Long after any cloth or leather portion has
rotted away, the plastic lives on.
Do these items really need to last so long?
Bio-degradable plastics do exist, the expected lifetimes of which can be
tuned in the manufacturing process from months to tens of years or more,
depending upon the application and required lifetime. Why aren't
they used? The only answer we can think of is money - they must
cost more to produce - or there may simply be insufficient public,
industry and governmental awareness of the issue and subsequently,
little demand or pressure for their widespread usage.
This must change someday. We ourselves, plan to
take steps to raise awareness of this issue. One day, we hope the
world will come to see the utilization of plastics that never degrade to
package soda pop or potato chips as inexcusable as using PCBs or DDT or
Asbestos is viewed today. But until that day comes, we have made
the personal decision to purchase as little plastic as possible,
preferring almost any other packaging option. We don't buy bottled
water for example and purchase soda pop exclusively in cans, even though
it can be a more expensive option. And when the check-out girl
asks us "Paper or plastic?", we know how to answer (actually, we bring
our own cloth shopping bags when we provision). The personal
satisfaction of knowing we are doing something, even if it is just a
couple of consumers making more educated purchasing choices, outweighs
any inconvenience or added expense. Our children have also become
as sensitive to the issue as we have. After years of exploring beaches
and seeing the results of our worldwide plastics industry, they are now more
aware of the long-term consequences of their own purchasing habits on
their environment and on the beaches and wildlife they have come to