4.25.2010

Perils of Plastic


Every year on April 22nd we celebrate Earth Day. Recently, many celebrated this day by updating their facebook statuses with feigned expressions of concern for Mother Earth. But this is just one day of the year when ecosystem issues are important all the time and deserve far more attention than a simple "Happy Earth Day" written in ubiquity. For example, everyday, millions of tiny pieces of plastic called nurdles wash up on the beaches of the world, yet hardly a soul seems to recognize this phenomenon.

More than 250 billion pounds of nurdles are made each year which are then melted down and molded to create things like plastic bottles, bags, toys, etc. Making these pellets is the easiest way to ship raw plastic and so tons must be produced around the clock. They are most often transported by ocean tankers which can hold about a billion pellets at once, but will have lost MANY into the water by the time they reach their destination because nurdles are so small and slip through cracks easily.

On some beaches, a person can walk right over a few nurdles and think they are merely bits of organic beach matter, but on others you can pick up nurdles by the handful. They represent more than 10% of all ocean debris and 98% of beach debris. What also should be noted is that oceans are not the only bodies of water to be affected. Nurdles often get washed down drains from factories and into lakes, rivers, and public water systems.

Nurdles are known to be very absorbent, like sponges. When left in water they often absorb chemicles like PCBs and other POPs and accumulate levels that are 100 times as concentrated as in the surrounding water. The true danger, however, lies in when animals then eat these pellets. A nurdle is easily mistaken for a smaller organism or even a tiny egg. More and more ocean animals turn up with nurdles in their stomachs. In the photo below, you can see nurdles inside a jellyfish. In some areas of the world's oceans, plastic outnumbers plankton by six to one (1). Nurdles pose an enormous threat to aquatic life but the threat doesn't stop there.


When small creatures ingest the nurdles, larger animals then eat those creatures and the chain continues all the way up to humans. People often eat fish which either still have nurdles in their stomachs (hard to tell after the fish is already filleted at the grocery store), or still retain remnants of all the toxic POPs the nurdles had absorbed. The remains of nurdles are everywhere; in much of our food, our drinking water, in our hair and on our skin. These compounds and their toxic tag-alongs do not biodegrade. After thousands of years they may break down into smaller pieces, sink to become part of sea floor sediment, or become absorbed into the food chain and, in turn, absorbed into us (2). There is no reversing the damage already done, we can only make a stand now to try and keep it from becoming worse.

Initiatives are being taken by organizations like Heal the Bay to try and regulate the plastic industry because, as The Ocean Protection Council has found, voluntary solutions do not work. Bill AB 258, signed by Gov. Schwarzeneggeris designed to monitor and regulate the release of pre-production pellets (nurdles) into the marine environment. This was a great step forward to try and stop nurdle pollution at the factory. However, there are things we can individually do to help in the struggle against nurdle polution.

The demand for cheap and convenient plastic is high all over the world; from the CEO who wants to make his or her products for cheap, to the average household where disposing of an empty soap bottle is easier than getting it refilled. That is why billions and billions of nurdles are made every year. One thing each individual can do to help this situation is reduce their consumption of plastics. As far as the refilling of soap bottles is concerned, certain brands like Dr. Bronner's offer refilling routinely; you can ask your local grocer for options. Also, try using non-disposable razors, glass or metal water bottles, pens that are mostly metal and don't have plastic tubes, wood or metal bowls and cups, picture frames that do not use plastic, or toys for your children with a limited number of pastic parts. There are even organizations dedicated to helping people find alternatives to plastic, like this awesome online store called Life Without Plastic.

If you are interested in reading more about nurdles, Alan Weisman dedicates a whole chapter of his book The World Without Us to the subject. I would highly recommend picking up this book because the entire thing is mind blowing when it comes to discussing our relationship with the Earth. You can also read the specific chapter about nurdles online HERE.

Pollution caused by plastic production is already evident: especially in our oceans. It will only get worse, however, if nurdle generation continues at its current rate. These plastics and the toxins they absorb will be around long after we're gone. Hopefully it will not be because of them that we are no longer around. Let's re-examine the cost our environment and our own bodies are paying for the convenience of plastic items.

2 comments:

Mindbender said...

Hey Jayna,
Great post! Humans just don't seem to understand the impact they have just from drinking bottled water. But that's exactly what the large corporate entities want like Nestle, Coca-Cola and PepsiCo. Again, it's all about profits and when it comes down to it they are the ones responsible, not the consumers.
New laws in to be put into place to hold these huge corporate entities responsible. They need to be the one's paying for it.

Sandy said...

Too bad that people don't care about our world's oceans considering that 50% of the air we breathe comes from it. Check this video out. http://youtu.be/57_KdKrJKeM