A Sea of Plastic

By John Grula

Plastic is a basic ingredient of our lives today.  But the use of it, not thought through by industry or by humans, is a spectacular contaminant of the natural world.  Unlike global warming, which political ostriches can say is a natural phenomenon, there is obviously nothing natural about plastic garbage.  (By the way, the National Geographic piece mentioned here is very good and very graphic.)

In “Albatross,” filmmaker Chris Jordan amply illustrates the huge negative impacts that plastic waste is having on large colonies of Laysan albatross on the remote Pacific island of Midway.

As big as this story is, it is but a microcosm of the enormous harm that plastics are inflicting on all forms of marine life in the Pacific and the world’s other oceans.

About 8 million metric tons of discarded plastic ends up in the oceans every year, according to a recent report in the Los Angeles Times. There it adds to plastic waste items already floating in what have grown into literal islands of garbage.

This, of course, is not counting the mess that plastics have created on the planet’s terrestrial environment.  On land, according to the Times, we have produced billions of tons of plastic junk that shouldn’t be landfilled, but is. In fact, 91 percent of plastic trash is not recycled, according to a report in the July 2017 issue of National Geographic Magazine. “Mass production of plastics, which began just six decades ago, has accelerated so rapidly that it has created 8.3 billion metric tons — most of it in disposable products that end up as trash,” writes Laura Parker, reporting on a study published last year in the peer-reviewed journal Science Advances.

“Plastic takes more than 400 years to degrade, so most of it still exists in some form,” as Parker reports. And, she writes, “Only 12 percent has been incinerated. … The prediction that by mid-century the oceans will contain more plastic waste than fish, ton for ton, has become one of the most-quoted statistics and a rallying cry to do something about it.”

Making matters worse, plastic floating on the surface is hit by sunlight, causing it to disintegrate into tiny particles that birds and other marine creatures often mistake for food. As the situation stands today, scientists believe contamination of the entire marine food chain is possible.   

Unbeknownst to many, lovers of the albatross and other threatened bird species led the struggle for environmental protections in this country.

In fact, this year marks the centennial of the landmark Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) of 1918. One of the nation’s first major pieces of environmental law, the MBTA was enacted to protect migratory birds. The statute makes it illegal to pursue, hunt, capture, kill, or sell such birds without a waiver. Over 800 species are currently on the list. The legislation confers additional environmental benefits, such as protection of wetlands and forests. This law predated the Endangered Species Act by 56 years, with the MBTA setting a significant precedent for this important piece of modern-day legislation.

The 113-year-old National Audubon Society deserves most of the credit for passage of the MBTA. Over the years, the Audubon Society has worked with the oil and utility industries to implement simple and cheap measures to protect birds from hazards like oil waste pits and power lines, according to the spring edition of Audubon magazine. The organization continues to be a leader on a wide range of environmental issues, such as plastic waste pollution.    

In our evolving relationship with nature, what lies ahead seems clear. We can continue on this path and suffer the consequences, or we can take the action necessary to prevent our planet from being completely overrun by plastic garbage.

This piece was originally published in the Pasadena Weekly on August 16, 2018.