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Just One Word...

Posted Monday, May 3, 2010, at 9:04 AM

Plastic In The Pacific Trash Vortex
Many of us somewhat older folks remember the 1967 movie "The Graduate". For those that have not seen this flick, it's the story of Benjamin Braddock, a recent college grad and the events that take place after his graduation. Young Ben is the son of a wealthy family, and his graduation party finds Braddock family associates and friends offering valuable information and tips for his future. I'll never forget one of the bits of advice one of the party attendees gave young Ben. The man said "I want to say just one word Ben, just one... Plastics".

Well the movie writers got it right about plastics. What a wonderful invention that has ingrained itself into the very fabric of our lives. Almost everything you can think of uses plastic one way or another. Packaging is one use for plastics. Go into a big box retailer and you won't find much that isn't made of, covered in, or coated with plastics. You can't even get your stuff from the store to your car unless you use a plastic bag to haul it out, unless you are one of those folks that uses a reusable shopping bag, which by the way are very often made out of recycled plastic.

Yep, plastic is some really great stuff. Modern medicine wouldn't be very modern without plastics. Your car would weigh a lot more and get a lot fewer MPG if it wasn't for plastic. Product prices would be higher because plastic is cheap to manufacture and is used to package just about everything... just look at how much of it we throw away.

Plastics durability is something else too. Do you know how long it takes a plastic bag to decompose? I've read it takes 1000 years. Now I don't know if that is really true or not, but we all know that plastic is pretty tough stuff. Recycling of plastic isn't very cost effective compared to most other consumer products like aluminum, and though a lot of plastic gets recycled, it's a drop in the proverbial bucket when compared to the amount manufactured.

Here are a few plastic facts...

Americans use 2.5 million plastic bottles EVERY HOUR! Approximately 3 out of 4 get tossed. Americans throw away 25 billion Styrofoam cups every year. Over 5 trillion plastic bags are manufactured worldwide each year. Just in the US of A, 380 billion plastic bags are used each year. That's about 1200 plastic bags for every man, woman, and child in the country. Of that 380 billion bags, at best only 2% get recycled. The rest end up in a landfill or somewhere else.

Speaking of somewhere else, have you heard of the Pacific Trash Vortex? It's a huge area larger than the state of Texas full of plastic and other crud that has found it's way into the ocean. You can read about it here... http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Pacif...

So today my point is that I hope you will consider what you buy and how you use plastics. While I know we can't get along without plastics, I also know that we could get along with a lot less of the stuff. Try and find products that don't require the single use of plastic. Recycle every bit of plasic you can. Try and find ways to reuse plastic containers. Do anything you can do to reduce plastic use and you help us all in the long run.

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Our little year-round river here is just barely too wide to clear with a running jump in most places.

There are still some historic grist mills along it.

The original Indian trading paths have been located along its valley.'

Fortunately for a long stretch of river, twice yearly clean up days have removed several hundred tons of trash over the past decade.

The recyled materials from each drive have paid the bills for the next.

All it takes is hundreds of people getting on old clothes and shoes, eager for eight to ten hours wallowing in the muck.

Best thing, several judges have started sentencing litter bugs to work in one or two or more river clean ups.

-- Posted by HerndonHank on Fri, May 7, 2010, at 4:14 PM

Does that mean if I put a message in a plastic bottle and threw it into the ocean that it would eventually find its way to this vortex? Hmm... So that's why they always put those things in glass bottles. I'm just kidding. Although, a gps unit and a plastic bottle might provide the explanation science is looking for. I've got the bottle if someone else has the gps.

-- Posted by McCook1 on Mon, May 3, 2010, at 5:56 PM

I agree GI, but Robert was and is correct about the picture. Maybe I should change it to show microscopic plastic instead?

-- Posted by Brian Hoag on Mon, May 3, 2010, at 3:46 PM

Perhaps it would be wise to tell why the plastic is small and suspended in the water. From the above cited source...

"The Great Pacific Garbage Patch has one of the highest levels known of plastic particulate suspended in the upper water column. As a result, it is one of several oceanic regions where researchers have studied the effects and impact of plastic photodegradation in the neustonic layer of water. Unlike debris, which biodegrades, the photodegraded plastic disintegrates into ever smaller pieces while remaining a polymer. This process continues down to the molecular level."

Polymers last forever as far as I know. When plastic gets that small, it is ingested by aquatic organisms and enters our food chain eventually. Just something to think about...

-- Posted by Brian Hoag on Mon, May 3, 2010, at 3:21 PM

Robert A Peel is mostly correct about the visibility of the Pacific Trash Vortex. It can't be seen from space is is often difficult to see from low flying aircraft. While the above picture is claimed to be from the vortex, I'll agree with Robert that "it is a mistake to visualize the trash heap as the size of Texas in the MANNER the photo suggests".

But make no mistake, plastic, sludge, and who knows what all is there though much of it is small and floats just below the surface, and though several attempts have been tried to remediate the problem, there has been little success, and some scientists think it is mission impossible. All the while, the trash vortex gets bigger.

Robert mentions the size of the vortex being unknown guesswork and that is true. For this blog however, I chose to use the smallest size estimate for the vortex I could find, but to go to the other extreme of estimates, it could be larger than the continental USA too.

-- Posted by Brian Hoag on Mon, May 3, 2010, at 2:55 PM

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