Nature’s Secrets

Earth is too awash in plastic

April 14, 2013 

Meg Lowman, an N.C. State University professor and forest canopy expert, directs the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences’ Nature Research Center.

CARLTON WARD JR.

One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.

Aldo Leopold

A recent trip of Raleigh community leaders to advise the royalty of Johor, Malaysia, on global conservation and creating scientific exchange produced lifetime memories – as well as a photo album depicting many amazing landscapes strewn with plastic.

Throughout Asia (and other continents), plastic trash is strewn along train tracks and roadsides, swirling in urban parking lots, nestled amidst tall grasses, embedded in fences, littering shorelines, and piled high in landfills. Plastic is viewed by some emerging countries as “progress,” reflecting the Americanization of their culture.

In Malaysia, they sold water bottled in Florida, and in America we buy water from Fiji! The ubiquitous plastic water bottle has revolutionized globalization, allowing tourists to visit tropical jungles without dehydration; providing hotels a safe way for guests to brush teeth without fear of dysentery; and offering fast-food options to all corners of the planet. But data are emerging to confirm that our convenient, throwaway plastic technologies are taking a serious toll on Mother Nature, and also on human health.

Humans currently producemore than 250 million tons of plastic per year. More than 30 billion plastic water bottles are bought and thrown away annually in the U.S., but only an estimated 15 percent are recycled. Simple math reveals a remainder of nearly 70 million bottles discarded each and every day throughout our country. Many of these bottles, and other plastic garbage, end up in the ocean, broken down into small particles technically called “nurdles.” In the Pacific, a plastic garbage patch estimated at twice the size of Texas floats amidst the vortex of oceanic currents.

Swirling in the water column, nurdles eventually wash up onshore or are ingested by wildlife. In addition to their visual pollution, some plastic bottles contain polyethylene terephthalate (PET) that leaves a toxic residue as it breaks down. PET has been linked to breast cancer, prostate cancer and diabetes. Another insidious danger of throwaway plastic is that animals ingest these nurdles, causing horrific deaths. Autopsies on dead seabirds nesting in isolated Pacific islands reveal dozens of bits of plastic refuse, including caps of kids’ juice containers inadvertently fed by parent birds to baby birds, choking them. Many plastics are simply not breaking down as quickly or easily as predicted, with severe consequences to wildlife.

Throwaway plastic in India, Malaysia and other developing countries represent the “Americanization” of their lifestyle. Can we Americans change that misconception by moving beyond plastic trash?

Meg Lowman, an N.C. State University professor and forest canopy expert, directs the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences’ Nature Research Center. Online: www.canopymeg.com.

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