This is not a new story; it’s as old as plastic really and the advent of throw-away culture – a type of progress celebrated by a 1955 Life Magazine cover story “Throwaway Living.” That it’s half a century old, and still a developing story, is part of the problem according to Charles Moore, a sailor and founder of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, who accidentally ran into the floating plastic garbage island 13 years ago on a trip back from Australia to his home in Long Beach, California.
Until recently, even though Moore first sailed into the patch in 1997, the media has not been particularly tenacious about reporting this story. That's changed over the last few years. A number of news reports on the expanding garbage collection in the Pacific appeared in 2007; a video posting to Youtube.com on the toxic garbage patch also occurred in 2007. In 2008, VBS.tv, now linked to CNN.com, broadcast a 3-part report on the Northern Pacific Gyre “Toxic: Garbage Island”; the GMA segment posted here followed the VBS.tv report. In 2009, the VBS.tv report was reworked into 4 parts and posted to Youtube.com. Oprah kicked off her 2009 Earth Day series with a segment about this garbage patch. Also in 2009, Charles Moore produced a TED Talk, “Captain Charles Moore on the Seas of Plastic.” Each of these reports shows the consequences of global reliance on plastic: non-biodegradable bits replacing plankton at a concentration of 60:1 (oceanographers generally consider a 6:1 concentration a threat to aquatic life).
Much of the news about the plastic accumulation in the Northern Pacific Gyre, including the 2008 GMA segment posted here, offers viewers a look at the floating detritus of our consumption habits and lifestyles. Without a doubt, that look shocks, horrifies, disgusts. Some of the most affecting images in the VBS.tv report show carcasses of fish and other aquatic life filled with plastic debris of all kinds, but largely bottle tops. These animals eat plastic, mistaking it for plankton. Jelly fish tentacles become entangled in plastic shopping bags. Birds suffocate from ingesting condoms or pieces of plastic wrapping. To demonstrate the ubiquity of plastic bits in the ocean, VBS.tv reporter Thomas Morton observed an Algalita crew member’s face and body covered with so many tiny pieces of colored plastic after diving in the Northern Pacific Gyre that it looked glitter-coated. Moore argues that humans ingest plastic, too; our internal organs are perhaps as glitter-coated as the Algalita crew member’s face.
The miracle of plastic is evident in our homes, in our cars, in our sewer systems, in the packaging of our consumer products, in our shopping bags, in our toys, in our clothes, in our reusable drink holders, in the containers in our attics and basements, in our computers, in our sound systems, in our mobile devices, and, yes, even in our garbage cans and bins where we dispose of recyclables and non-recyclable waste. Moore’s work demonstrates that the miracle of plastic, in broken down bits, circulating in the Gyre as it also circulates through the bodies of aquatic and human life, characterizes the nature of who we globally are. As Moore points out in his TED Talk, the Gyre represents our post-geographic interconnection; his mapping of the paths garbage takes to end up in the Gyre is as intricate, as far reaching, and perhaps as ineluctable as a tracing of tweet routes. In 1991, Donna Haraway argued for “refusing an anti-science metaphysics,” for adopting a cyborgist perspective “in communication with all of our parts” (“Cyborg Manifesto," http://www.stanford.edu/dept/HPS/Haraway/CyborgManifesto.html, 181). The cyborg came to be through biotechnology and the introduction of machines into human bodies, machines composed of metal and, more often these days, plastic. In 2010, should we champion communicating with our glittery plastic entrails? Can we avoid such conversation?
Like others, the VBS.tv report has no answers. Cleaning the ocean? Rigorous recycling? Enacting global, national, local laws? We can all do our part and recycle every bit of plastic. It’s not difficult these days; there are separate garbage cans for plastic/cans, paper, and other trash in businesses, schools, and on the streets of many urban areas across the United States. Municipalities provide regular trash pick up days for recyclables. Our recycling consciousness has been so raised that some of us carry empty water bottles, food wrappers, Tic Tac containers in our bags or accumulate waste in our cars until we return home or find dedicated garbage cans for the kinds of stuff we are lugging around. Even so, all recycled plastic isn’t miraculously transformed into not-trash in the recycling plant: bottle tops, for instance, which become garbage, whether they find their way into the recycling bin or not, Barbie dolls, pieces of unused water pipes, and as Annie Leonard points out in The Story of Stuff (http://www.storyofstuff.com), juice boxes, which are composed of paper, metal, and plastic -- the first two components so tightly fused that it's nearly impossible to separate them for recycling purposes.
Despite growing, global acceptance of the benefits of individual recycling (some countries are clearly farther along in this effort than others), plastic continues to accumulate at alarming rates in the Northern Pacific Gyre -- in the smaller, but expanding, garbage patch in the Atlantic Ocean, and in other water dumps. The GMA segment offers one solution: it concludes with a call for acting locally, at home, and in the context of our daily lives. The GMA reporter states that since only 5% of plastic is recycled globally, if we were all more conscientious, the amount of plastic floating in the Gyre would eventually, over time, decrease. The reporter makes this claim without accounting for the contribution to plastic ocean and landfills from global industrial and manufacturing processes and irresponsible corporate waste-disposal behaviors. John Weber, Northeast Regional Manager for Surfrider Foundation (http://www.surfrider.org) offers another approach to the accumulating plastic problem, and he might be on the right track. Weber suggests requiring each manufacture to take responsibilty for the disposal of its own product packaging.
Ultimately, as is implicit in Weber's suggestion, individual recycling is almost beside the point; the problem is just too enormous according to Morton. The VBS.tv report provides a powerful argument for an end to global reliance on plastic; however, the report ends with a dull thud (that kind of rhetorical question that stops conversation: to close the report, Morton asks “If we’ve basically ruined the ocean, what chance do we have with fucking land or with ourselves for that matter?”), proposing no activist agenda, offering no future vision, no habit-changing rules-to-live-by that could turn the plastic trend around. Recycling doesn’t accomplish that, neither does carrying our own cloth bags when we go shopping; in fact, both of these practices, which in trivial ways represent environmentally-responsible consumerism, might justify continued reliance – recycling as a set up, like post-confession permission – if we use it and recycle it, then we can use it again. Clearly, each of us produces a lot of garbage, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency 4.4 pounds per day (plastic waste comprises a signficant amount of that trash), and we could certainly be more careful about separating the discards of our daily lives. However, overlooking corporate responsibility for the mountains of non-biodegradable debris piling up all around, and inside, us distracts from identifying a more effective solution: saying no to plastic (collectively, loudly, unrelentingly) so that COOs can hear it.