Local solution to a worldwide plastics problem?

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

"I just want to say one word to you -- just one word -- 'plastics.'"

The generation that followed that pronouncement in 1967's "The Graduate" certainly took that advice to heart.

Today plastics are everywhere, from the wad of shopping bags in the pantry to the tiny beads in toothpaste, to industrial pellets and detergent bottles.

Where does all that plastic go?

Ideally, it is recycled, in places like McCook's transfer station, where visitors are directed to deposite plastics according to type, as well as tin, glass and aluminum.

If not recycled, it winds up in the solid waste stream, trucked at great expense to an approved landfill near Ogallala or worse, blowing in the wind to wind up in roadside ditches and caught in trees and bushes.

A lot of it winds up in streams and rivers and, eventually finds its way into the ocean, where it collects, we've heard, in floating masses covering many miles like the "Great Pacific Garbage Patch."

But the problem isn't as bad as expected, or at least is different than scientists expected.

A research ship towed a mesh net around the world, collecting plastic at 141 sites. Using that data, researchers estimate the total amount of floating plastic debris in open ocean at 7,000 to 35,000 tons.

That's a lot less than the 1 million tons Andres Cozar of the University of Cadiz in Spain had extrapolated from data reaching back as far as the 1970s.

But less floating plastic is not necessarily good news; what happens to the rest of it?

Researchers worry that smaller pieces are being ingested by sea creatures, with unknown effects on the animals -- or the humans that consume them. Sushi anyone?

Perhaps it's time for a new emphasis on biodegradable plastics such as polylactic acid -- PLA -- made from corn, or other bio-derived plastics, instead traditional plastics derived from oil.

That would be good for the oceans -- and good for heartland corn farmers as well.

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: