The study results released last week which revealed that 29 major tributary rivers leading to the Great Lakes all contained measurable concentrations of microplastics is but the most recent facepalm in the history of plastic.
Humans have been making plastic-like materials, such as natural rubber, since ancient times, but starting in the mid-1800s, chemists began trying to develop a fully synthetic substitute for natural rubber that would be a mass-produced feedstock for industry. The first successful scientist to do so was Alexander Parkes, who created Parkesine in 1950. (Coincidentally, the 1800s Industrial Revolution and the 1950s Atomic Age are the most serious contenders for the official beginning of the Anthropocene, when Homo sapiens had such an undeniable impact on the planet that a new geological age had arrived.) Soon, plastic exploded all over the place. It represented Progress: it kept food fresher longer, it meant disposable medical implements, it was crafted into artificial hearts and soda bottles. The benefits of a synthetic material that was nearly endlessly moldable and which wouldn’t easily decay were obvious, but every balance sheet has two sides, and we are beginning to realize the full extent of the liabilities of plastic.
In the 1970s and 80s, sailors began to notice the garbage patches. These are places far out in the world’s oceans where currents come together and create stagnant zones where debris floats out to die. Biodegradable waste (like driftwood) isn’t a huge problem, but the immortal qualities of plastic mean that it doesn’t really go away, it merely falls apart by the actions of sunlight and weathering into smaller and smaller pieces, called microplastics. We know now that these huge vortices exist in at least five major ocean basins (the North and South Pacific, the South Atlantic, and the Indian Ocean), vast areas full of small pieces and microplastics that float mostly just below the surface. The plastic bits may stay in these gyres for years and years, or they may end up on the bottom of the sea (like an orange plastic bag that once held Uncle Ben’s rice, but which was later found 2,940 feet down at the bottom of the Atlantic, roughly midway between Ireland and Newfoundland), washed up on shore, or in the belly of a sea creature.
Midway Island is in the middle of the North Pacific garbage patch, 2,000 miles away from the nearest continent, a dot of land where gulls stop to nest and raise their young. Unfortunately, they also eat the floating plastic bits, which can look very much like gull food, but being undigestible, plug up the digestive system causing death. Consider the trailer for the film Midway, but be careful, it’s a heartbreaker:
Midway: Message from the Gyre
Some of the plastic eventually leaves the oceans to land on beaches. Medical waste washing up on shore, shocking in the 1980s, is now shrug-level news. Concave plastic waste, such as the lids from detergent bottles, has been used as hermit crab “shells” while macro- and microplastics melted by beach bonfires and mixed with sand and other debris has been turned into a new kind of rock called “plastiglomerates,” found in Hawaii and potentially on coastlines worldwide.
With so much plastic in the oceans, it wasn’t surprising to learn that it had been found in the Great Lakes as well. While some of the microplastics were of the “microbead” variety found in body care products like scrubs and toothpaste, much more of it is in the form of fibers, such as the lint that washes out of fleece garments as they’re laundered. The dreaded microbeads have been banned (effective starting in 2017-2019), but it seems unlikely that clothes and blankets made from plastic will be pulled from the market anytime soon. Since the fibers were found in vastly greater quantities than the beads, and they seem to persist in the innards of fish longer than the microbeads do, the ban may be more of a feel-good measure than anything that will help the environment.
Efforts to clean up microplastics would be Sisyphean in scope. Every now and then, some bright youngster dreams up a device that would hypothetically harvest the tiny bits from the ocean, but critical, reality-based examination of these devices reveals severe weaknesses. And what would we do with all the plastic to make sure it didn’t blow away again? Efforts to turn old plastic into diesel fuel are not commercially viable, and when it requires caustic chemicals and heating the old plastic to temperatures of more than 700°F to transform it into fuel, I have to wonder how much the return would be per unit of energy invested in this process. Recycling plastic, while possible to some degree, has problems of its own which could be the subject of its own article.
The plastic we throw away, in one form or another, finds its way around the ecosystem, through the water and into the fish we eat and even the beer we drink. The lightly carbonized outlines of crushed plastic bottles may make it into the fossil record, and if things go the way they seem to be going, I wouldn’t be surprised if one day there are plastic miners’ unions excavating landfills for the resources we threw away in our times of plenty. The Romans had their Plumbum, we have our Microplastics.